The Spark

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

From Union Solidarity to Working Class Unity

Nov 30, 1984

The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) recently ruled that only workers currently employed at the Phelps Dodge Copper Company were eligible to vote in the October decertification election pending against the USWA (United Steel Workers of America) and twelve other smaller unions. Given that the thousands of workers still out on strike will thus have no vote in the matter, the scabs who have taken their jobs during the course of this 16-month long bitter strike being the ones to decide it – this ruling signals the probable destruction of the unions at Phelps Dodge – or, at any rate, their removal as the bargaining agents legally recognized by the NLRB.

At about the same time, the 6-month long strike at the AP Auto Parts plant in Toledo, Ohio, was beginning to dissipate. AP has succeeded in maintaining more or less full production with the employment of scabs. Whether AP will seek to follow the lead of Phelps Dodge in this matter, whether it will try to bring a formal end to the struggle, by also ejecting the union through NLRB procedures, isn’t clear yet.

In any case, what we have seen at both Phelps Dodge and AP Parts are militant strikes – strikes during the course of which the unions have carried out very hard actions; long strikes marked by the determination and courage of the workers; but strikes which, nonetheless, are apparently going down to complete defeat. The past years have been marked by very few victories for the workers, but the defeats were of a different order than this: for the most part, the kind of defeats which resulted because the workers accepted, without a fight, or with only a minimal one, the bosses’ demands for concessions. At AP Parts and Phelps Dodge, the workers have seen determined fights count for nothing: enormous concessions already have been imposed by the bosses; the strikers’ jobs have also been taken away and given to those who were willing to take the concessions, and even scab to get them.

And yet, if the question of victory or defeat could be decided simply as a function of the militancy of the fight, and the determination of the workers to oppose the bosses blow for blow, to hang on, these two strikes should have ended in victory for the workers.

All this raises the questions: in a time period like this, a period of economic crisis, when the bosses are determined to protect their own profits at the expense of the workers, is it possible for the workers to resist? What do such defeats mean for the whole working class?

Phelps Dodge

The copper workers went on strike on July 1, 1983, at five locations in Arizona and Texas, when the Phelps Dodge bosses refused to accept a contract patterned after an earlier agreement negotiated between the unions and the Kennecott Copper Company – a contract which had already incorporated a certain number of concessions. These concessions were not enough for Phelps Dodge, however, and so the strike began. When the company began hiring large numbers of scabs in August, thousands of strikers, their families, friends, neighbors and other unionists threw up mass picket lines that were able, at least temporarily, to stop the scabs and thus shut down production again. However, production was once again resumed several weeks later, when the Democratic, so-called “friend of labor” governor of Arizona sent in hundreds of state police and National Guardsmen, equipped with armored personnel carriers and helicopters; tear gas, clubs and guns, all of which were used to escort the scabs through the picket lines.

From that point on, up until today, 14 months later, the areas around the copper towns have been the scenes of repeated skirmishes between the forces of the state and of the workers. Production was repeatedly interfered with, or even shut down for short periods of time.

On their side, the strikers were reinforced by the actions of many beyond their own immediate ranks. The women of the copper towns often were the ones to face the vicious charges of the police when there was mass picketing. Other unions, especially the United Farm Workers, sent reinforcements. Money poured in from all over the country, as union after union answered the copper workers’ appeal for funds. Mass rallies and demonstrations gave evidence of the sense of solidarity which this strike evoked in broad sections of the working class in the Southwest and California, and even beyond.

On May 5, 1984, ten months after the strike began, a big solidarity rally and march was organized in Clifton-Morenci. Strike supporters came from New Mexico and California, as well as from Arizona. In the afternoon, there was a violent attack on the demonstrators, who had assembled in the street near the Phelps Dodge mine entrance, by the state troopers and local cops armed with rifles, tear gas and clubs. Over a dozen people were brutalized by the police after being arrested. But the demonstrators held their ground, and the afternoon and night shifts at the mine were canceled.

It was a critical moment for the strikers. The bosses mobilized all their forces to respond. The governor against sent National Guard troops into the area. At the same time he threatened long sentences to the state prison for all those who had just been arrested, as well as for anyone else arrested in the future. The courts, giving up even the pretense of impartiality, began to issue eviction orders against the strikers. Stringent court orders were issued, making it illegal for anyone to get within ten miles of the mine operations, and for any mass demonstrations to be held within the mining towns.

It was at that moment that the unions gave up calling on the other workers for help. Putting the other workers aside, the unions offered to give up enormous concessions to the company in order just to bring the strike to an end. They were even willing to agree that the scabs had a right to go on working, with the strikers having only the right to recall as increased production or attrition required new hiring. It was an open admission of defeat, which the companies seized on. Refusing the offer, they began through their scabs, to move to have the union decertified. And, as already noted, the NLRB sided with the bosses.

Since that time, the strike, although formally continuing, gives more and more evidence of having been defeated.

AP Auto Parts

The strike at AP Auto Parts has many parallels to the one at Phelps Dodge. Not nearly as long – 6 months, instead of 16 – nor involving as many workers, nonetheless, it demonstrated the same kind of determined fight on the part of the workers, tough actions organized by the union, actions of support and solidarity from other workers, and a range of forces which the bosses arrayed against the workers.

AP precipitated the strike, just as did Phelps Dodge, when it unilaterally imposed enormous cutbacks on the workers, at the expiration of the old contract, at the same time laying off over 40 per cent of the work force, replacing the lost labor with a massive speed-up and disciplining the workers in a fashion that seemed almost designed to provoke a strike.

The strike started, and the forces of the bosses marched in to reinforce AP. GM signed a new order with AP, providing AP agreed to reduce its labor costs. The NLRB turned down the UAW’s complaint of an unfair labor practice against AP for having unilaterally imposed cuts, and the state unemployment office cut, from the unemployment rolls, those workers who refused to become scabs for AP when it called them back to work. As AP began to resume production, the courts gave it an immediate order, limiting the number of picketers, so that the scabs had free access to the company, while the strikers did not. AP called in goons from a private, union-busting agency, Nuchols, Inc., hired for $45,000 a week. There was no restraining order put out against those goons, of course, and they soon began to attack even the minimal picket lines which appeared.

The workers at AP found many potential allies, however. The workers at the Sun Oil refinery were also on strike against a concession contract proposal. And the strike was watched with interest by workers throughout Toledo, given how many other workers were in similar situations, working for small parts companies, producing parts for the Big Three automakers. During the first month of the strike, the workers at AP often found their lines joined by workers from other places who came down in a simple show of solidarity. But this was not enough to keep AP eventually from resuming more or less full production with the scabs, given the forces allied on AP’s side.

The union proposed to organize a massive response, and put out a call to other UAW locals and to other unions for strike support, asking union militants at other plants to be ready to move on short notice.

On the afternoon of May 21, the call for support went out. Three to four thousand union militants showed up outside the AP gates. They came from other UAW locals in the Jeep, Chrysler, GM Hydromatic, Champion Spark Plug and other auto plants in Toledo; from the striking Sun Oil workers; from local building trades unions, from the Teamsters union and from the Communication Workers. The scabs were unable to leave.

Although the police attacked with tear gas, pellet guns and clubs to try to clear away the pickets, the scabs remained trapped within the plant until well after midnight. The police and company goons who had come prepared to attack the picketers found themselves under attack: their own tear-gas canisters were thrown back at them, along with bottles and bricks. While the cops managed to arrest 40 workers and to beat a number of picketers, the cops took casualties on their side: 12 cops were injured, and 18 police cars were seriously damaged.

AP was not able to resume production for several days. It pretended to reach an agreement on a tentative contract with the UAW, at which point the UAW agreed, under the urging of the Democratic mayor of Toledo, to respect the court order limiting the number of pickets. At which point, AP once more began to put out production with scabs, and then turn its back on the agreement. Indictments began to be returned against many of the workers involved in the demonstration, including many who had not even been arrested at the time. With many of the militants under threat of these indictments, the UAW called off a mass demonstration it had called in Toledo to support the strikers.

Today, the strike formally is still continuing, but AP has been running production more or less full since a few days after the May 21 demonstration. As it goes on, the workers, seeing less and less prospect, have been forced to go look for other work.

Solidarity – or a Generalized Struggle?

It is patently clear today – and it has been for several years now – that the bosses have every intention to take advantage of the economic crisis to take back as much as they can from the workers. In this effort, no boss is forced to stand alone, as these two strikes demonstrate. To the extent that the workers of any particular company fight back, they can expect to be opposed not just by their own boss, but by the police forces of the bourgeois state, by its judicial and administrative arms and by the media. And the workers can expect to find their own boss reinforced in one or another fashion – if it’s nothing more than the order signed by GM with AP Parts.

It is that which makes a strike so difficult in a time period like this. But this does not mean that the working class has no possibility to fight back – successfully – against the attacks it is taking today. What it does mean is that the kind of strikes which in the long post-war period of prosperity produced results for the workers – or at least gave the appearance of doing so – strikes in which to workers withheld their labor as a kind of economic blackmail against their boss who wanted production – what it means is that those kind of strikes, no matter how militant they might be, have little chance of success in a time period when the bosses are not pushed so much for production, and thus see the possibility to cut costs.

The workers certainly have taken on the bosses and won at other times during periods of economic crisis, the thirties being only the most spectacular in recent history. What gave the struggles of the thirties their strength is not only their militancy, nor the workers’ willingness to employ methods of struggle, such as factory occupations, which ignored the legalities of the bosses’ system – although, of course, for any struggle to be successful, it has to be militant and defiant of the bosses’ rules. What gave the struggles of the thirties their power was the fact that the struggles expanded, often far beyond the limits of a single factory, or even a single industry, or at least that every struggle held the threat of a possible expansion. Every strike had the potential to find reinforcements among workers who felt the same oppression, to encourage other workers’ struggles, often just through the force of example, sometimes by open calls for the extension of the struggle. The workers movement of the thirties mobilized the power of the workers as a class – it was that which made the situation so explosive – for the simple reason that the workers came to understand, at least in a vague way, the need to generalize as much as possible the struggles they took part in.

Certainly, this consciousness was only partial on the part of the working class: the movement stayed within the framework of the unions, unions for each different industry. That is, the movement stayed within the corporatist limits which sees the working class divided into different sections, even if those limits were broadened to meet industrial, rather than craft lines, and even if the struggles partially ignored them.

And undoubtedly, the consciousness of the workers to generalize their struggles was a very practical one: given the forces arrayed against any groups of workers who began a struggle, the workers needed reinforcements. By whatever means, the workers did come to understand the need to generalize their struggles. Maybe often it was nothing more than the encouragement to struggle which a particularly militant strike gave to all those other workers suffering under the bosses’ demands in that period of economic crisis. But by whatever means, the workers had acquired the sense that the working class has the same interests – from Seattle to New York and from Detroit to New Orleans – and that it has the need for a united struggle.

The dead-end which the workers at Phelps Dodge or AP Parts found themselves in was to be engaged in a militant struggle, at the moment when other workers were not struggling – or, at any rate, not yet struggling.

Could the struggle at either of these two places have been generalized? In a certain sense, of course, they were. The readiness of other workers to come out in militant actions of solidarity shows that. Quite obviously, the potential was there. And the workers had every reason to extend their struggles, from one company to another, from one industry to another. The situation of the workers at AP Parts or at Phelps Dodge is not unique. The whole auto industry is being “rationalized” today, that is more and more parts are being built at plants paying less than half of Big Three auto wages, and more of this parts industry is lowering the wages still further. The other copper producers are following on Phelps Dodge’s lead, coming back and demanding the same concessions from their own workers. And it’s not just auto or copper where we see this kind of thing happening.

All this means that the potential was there for a struggle to have been really generalized, much beyond what happened at AP and Phelps Dodge, which was really only basic solidarity given by the working class to one of its sections under attack.

It is here we can see what the policy of the unions really is. Occasionally, as at AP Parts or Phelps Dodge, they might ask for solidarity, that is, for other workers to give a hand to workers engaged in a difficult strike. But they don’t ask other workers to join a common fight, that is, to go beyond the corporatist limits imposed by the unions and to begin to act as a class.

Neither the UAW at AP Parts, nor the USWA at the Phelps Dodge called on other workers, even in the same industry, to join a common struggle. Neither addressed the other workers, trying to show them that they have the same interests as the strikers, that therefore they had every reason to join in the strike, making the AP Parts workers’ or the Phelps Dodge workers’ struggle their own. Both unions were willing to mobilize workers of the area, in a first step of solidarity, but both backed off without ever trying to take the mobilization as far as it could have gone. In fact the UAW, even for the first demonstration, mobilized essentially the union militants, and it did not call on broader layers of the working class for support. Of course, we don’t know how far the other workers would have been willing to engage the fight, but the enthusiastic and militant response to the simple call for solidarity indicates that it might have been possible to have a very tough fight which was generalized way beyond the limits of AP Parts or Phelps Dodge, maybe way beyond the limits of the auto parts or copper industries.

Obviously, it is not possible from a distance to say what was possible at Phelps Dodge, or at AP Parts. But from the standpoint of the working class, it is obvious that it can defend itself, and by so doing begin to have prospects, in a period like this, only when its struggles become generalized. That means the organizations of the working class have to prepare the workers with the idea that the real strength of the workers lies in their numbers and their unity. If the union leaderships are not ready to do this – and in fact, it is precisely their policy to go against this view – those working class militants who see the necessity for the working class to unify and generalize its struggles can prepare the workers today. And when struggles erupt, what is important is not simply to engage a tough, determined fight, but to look for every way to spread that fight, to make this necessity the preoccupation of the workers who engage the fight.