Nov 27, 2017
Thirty years ago, on November 23, 1987, 4,000 workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) ended a hard-fought 88-day strike, which pushed back company demands for major concessions.
While wages were an issue in the strike, the company’s intention to drastically cut sick time and eliminate flexibility in work start times was foremost in women workers’ minds, most of whom were responsible for children.
Earlier in 1987, Sally Bier ran for president of the Detroit local union with a slate of 12 executive candidates, with many more workers running for the steward positions.
The program of this slate was “No Concessions, No Secrets from the Workers,” and called for workers to have all information prior to decision making on a contract. In a leaflet addressed to all the workers, they wrote, “Don’t vote for us if you are not ready to fight if BCBSM demands concessions.”
The election was hotly contested, with hundreds of workers involved and active. Bier’s slate was elected, along with previous officials, who continued as the majority on the Board. With Blue Cross aiming to take concessions, there was no opportunity for anyone to settle into a “let-the-union-handle-it” mind set.
The top UAW leadership insisted that all bargaining remain secret. Of course, the company executives and many others were automatically included for information. But the workers were not: they were supposed to await the decisions made by union and company officials.
Bier disagreed and put out daily reports on bargaining and meetings for workers to discuss and vote, not just on what they were brought, but on what they wanted.
Her team insisted that workers should vote on strike demands with everyone in attendance. In the face of threats by the international union and the company, they left the bargaining table in the hours leading up to the midnight contract deadline to discuss in a meeting of almost 1,000 workers in the downtown local. There the workers discussed in detail what the company had last “offered,” and then formulated what they wanted, as their own strike demands.
Vitally important, by their votes in this meeting, workers made the decision to strike THEIR own decision – not the bargaining committee’s, or the International’s, but theirs.
Another meeting of almost 1,000 workers voted to elect a strike committee. Why a strike committee? To run the strike, of course; to make decisions in the heat of the fight and to take decisions to the full body of strikers as often as possible. Workers put themselves forward. Others were proposed – leaders of the local it was important not to exclude. Putting up the strike committee was a means of keeping decision-making in the hands of those making the fight. The committee would organize the strike on a daily basis. Over the 12 weeks of the strike, as the situation got more difficult, some workers stepped aside, but others joined it, reinforcing the workers’ determination to continue the strike.
In addition, strikers decided to have daily membership meetings. This was unheard of, and greatly agitated the international union leaders who wanted to send workers home. But it made sense to the workers. They were proposing to make a real fight, not to have a monthly meeting to vote on a budget or a holiday party.
The strike committee asked those on strike to form other committees, like the picket captain committee, 50-strong, responsible for 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week picketing. There was also a cheerleader committee, a sign-maker committee and the communications team. Workers tackled these and other committee positions with excitement, and were always meeting to figure problems out.
The International Union set up two committees under its control. One of them verified eligibility for receipt of strike benefits based on performance of picket duty. In the beginning, these committees viewed the strike actions directed by the worker committees as a mess. Some of it definitely was! But as the strike went on, and these “official” committees became more involved in the workers’ problems, they became integrated into the workers’ actions and meetings, for the most part.
For many strikers, the most memorable part of the strike was daily life on the picket lines there in the heart of Detroit. From midnight when the strike was declared, until the days after the strikers had returned, the companionship, the comradery and the experiences as picketers, captains, cheerleaders, sign makers was an unexpected gift of the event. Strike leaders came every day, but so did many other workers. Some came two or three times a week until they couldn’t do it any longer. Attendance on the lines dropped off, but the strike committee scheduled regular demonstrations and “rolls” or moving demonstrations, to ensure workers could always know when and where to reconnect. Outreach committees tried to bring other workers to the line and went out to different workplaces like Ford, Chrysler, GM plants to hand out strike flyers.
The fact that the International Union had not planned for a strike gave workers the opportunity to control their own strike. Workers decided that it was up to them to get everyone down to the picket line. The calling committee was a group of 20 telephone inquiry representatives who called workers to have them report. The fact that other workers, not the International or the local, were asking them to come made it real. It resulted in a whole series of discussions and decisions to insist that four hours a week, the time required by the International UAW to qualify for strike benefits, was not enough! “They can’t require more than the International rules call for, which is four hours!” so said the International. “What a crock!” was the workers’ response. “That’s why they can’t win anything!”
Picketing was 24 hours 7 days, and all committees put that first. But hundreds of workers came through downtown. There were strike halls at St. Andrews Hall and in the basement of the Globe Building, where the local was housed. The Strike Headquarters at St. Andrews Hall had a reading room and a child care area as well. With coffee and donuts, it became the place to be, and to get strike bulletins from the strike committee and notices of demonstrations or “rolls” to come.
During the first week, strikers were determined to keep the non-union workers from going in. Someone put nails down, and the disabled cars and tow trucks held up entry to the parking garage. Strikers blocked cars in militant actions, and Blue Cross got city police to escort cars in. The women strikers were good at calling out to the police to support them, and many did. But the company took steps to get an injunction to limit pickets. Strikers said, OK, so we won’t block, we’ll “roll” around the building, move and move and get hundreds down here to surround the tower, and the Jefferson Building and Edison Plaza.
“Rolls” became a standard operating procedure for the strike. Hundreds of picketers would form lines to encircle the buildings with chanting and singing. Night rolls were the creation of the Cheerleader team, who discovered that weekend events at Cobo Hall and downtown locations made perfect places to roll groups of picketers with signs and flashlights across Jefferson Avenue! They were happy to see that even suburban residents were learning about how dirty Blue Cross was – as they had to slow down and stop for the roll to pass.
When Teamsters from Local 299 decided to “roll” hundreds of trucks around Blue Cross in low gear, cutting off access to and from the building and sounding their horns when strikers made the signal to “BLOW!”, it was one of the happiest times on the lines.
In the beginning of the strike, UAW President Owen Bieber and people from his office participated in a major demonstration in front of corporate headquarters and called on local unions to join in. But that quickly stopped when International staff began to attack the strike.
When the UAW representative from the Strike Assistance Program came on location, he bullied everyone connected with the strike committee. He kicked the strike committee out of the local hall basement and bullied St. Andrews Hall management into dropping the strike headquarters. He set up the strike check payments in a location miles from the downtown local union and strike locations. He encouraged hostility toward the leaders and strikers. He cut off strike benefits to strike committee members and didn’t give it back until he was threatened by the workers. Finally, he even tried to take away the money that was donated to the strike by auto workers and others.
As the strike moved through October and into November, the numbers participating in the strike committee and other committees fell off as workers took up part-time jobs or couldn’t afford to come to the lines as often. Divisions incited by the International began to take their toll.
At the beginning of October, a plan was afoot to put the local union under International Union supervision in a receivership. A popular newscaster put an article in print calling for the removal of the President, and red-baiting in the press and on the lines followed. A large meeting of the Local Union degenerated into shouting and a near fight as two sides, the new and old administrations, fought to control the decisions.
Then agitation for a return to work was started behind the scenes. But the fact that workers discussed collectively, and voted openly in front of each other in a general meeting on whether or not to return, kept the strike from breaking down. Those who were more determined reinforced the others. They said, “We have come this far; I’m not going back for less than what I have now.”
If they had not discussed their problems openly, if there had not been a vote to cement the sentiment to stay out, despite the difficulties, workers may have individually decided to give up. Their own collective decision-making protected their future.
Then a scandal broke loose implicating Blues upper management in schemes that gave perks, like money for condominiums or cars, to top executives and those on the Board of Directors, including two UAW officials. The roof blew off! The strike was reinvigorated.
Certainly, the presence of some auto workers on picket lines helped the strikers through difficult times in the strike. Some auto locals came to the line with roses for the picketers and set up events to support the strike, like spaghetti dinners at Locals 160 and 600. Baskets were distributed with food collected by auto workers and other workers.
When the International Union was red- baiting, having support from UAW local leaders like Don Douglas, Pete Kelly, Russ Leone and General Baker reinforced the workers’ renewed determination. In the end, there were some people in the International Union who tacitly supported the strike.
Finally, Blue Cross gave in and came up with a contract offer that was acceptable to the workers. They voted to accept it – but only after Blue Cross brought two fired strikers back.
The strikers were able to hold off a long, concerted attack by the health care giant. In a period when auto workers were being hammered with concessions, when others thought it impossible to make a fight against them, Blue Cross workers got decent wage increases (rather than the uncertain bonuses auto workers were getting) and were able to retain the old time-off-the-job programs. For the quality of life of the predominately female workforce, this was a major victory.
The tenacity of the strikers and their ability to shrug off hardships was the dominant factor in the strike. Accustomed to being told on a regular basis that they couldn’t succeed, that they didn’t have the brains or the status to be anyone, workers heard the exact opposite from the strike leaders. They heard that it could be done, and that they were the ones who could do it: they knew in their brains and their hearts how to organize and fight and win! Being female and running a household requires intelligence and skill and the ability to shrug off problems and work around obstacles. Surviving as workers at the Blues requires more of the same.
Mad and tired of their conditions, the workers stepped forward. Their spirit, their committees, their chants, their anger, their rolls around downtown Detroit represented a fight that, if picked up by other workers, might have changed the condition of the whole working class.
The working class has lost out, time and time again – both before and after the Blue Cross strike – from the lack of revolutionary leadership in the factories and workplaces. Our class deeply needs new leadership with the revolutionary perspective that capitalism, driven by the profit system, must be taken down and replaced with a collective, socialist society and that workers have the absolute right to exercise their power to secure what they need, be it a wage increase, a benefit, or a society that benefits humans, not corporations.
The strike, collectively led by the workers, is a small reflection of what workers can accomplish through their own struggle, once freed from leadership that tells them to wait for deliverance. The Blue Cross strike can serve as an example of what is possible, still today, when a different policy, one resting on the capacities of the workers themselves, is followed.