The Spark

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

Blue Cross (Detroit):
A Somewhat Unusual Strike

Feb 1, 1988

At the end of November, almost 4,000 Blue Cross workers in the state of Michigan went back to work, after 12 weeks on strike. They went back, having voted overwhelmingly to accept a contract which in its essentials was roughly the same contract they had had before the strike started.

True, it was not the contract that Blue Cross, the major medical insurance company in the U.S., had tried to impose on them. That contract proposal, which the company had repeatedly declared was its “final offer,” would have eliminated the annual wage increases of the previous contract, which accumulated to 26% over three years, and replaced them with annual bonuses of 5% a year. The company also insisted on reducing a number of sick time provisions for all the workers, eliminating flex-time (which is an important feature in a workplace where the enormous majority of the workers are women with children to care for), gutting the seniority protections and effectively eliminating the possibility of promotions for most workers. There were a number of other small takeaways — by themselves, none very important, but taken together, a real reduction in working conditions and benefits. It was this total package of concessions and takeaways which Blue Cross declared to be its “final offer.”

The final settlement effectively reestablished the old contract which the company had wanted to junk. It accorded wage increases accumulating to more than 17% over the three years, plus an immediate $1,500 up front (which amounted to about another 10% of the average worker’s wages); and the takeaway demands were either dropped or balanced out by equivalent gains (for example, on the sick time policy, workers will not be able to draw on the sick time bank for the first 3 days of any absence; on the other hand, long term disability will now be paid at 70%, rather than 50%, of a worker’s regular wages).

In another time period, it would have been an open set-back for workers to spend 12 weeks on strike, only to go back with no more than what they started with. But over the whole last decade, the immense majority of the workers have not been able even to do that.

A Decade of Concessions

In general, in this country, with the exception of the miners’ strike of 1978, there has been very little organized resistance to the bosses’ drive for concessions. In Michigan, where the auto contracts generally set the pace for the rest of the workers, every successive contract since 1979 has carried explicit wage concessions and takeaways in benefits.

Around the time of the 1981 air traffic controllers (PATCO) strike, there were signs of increasing combativity. But when Reagan fired the controllers and the union did nothing, other than to organize Solidarity Day, the Washington demonstration which was an election rally for the Democrats, a barrier seemed to be placed in the way of the working class. Still, today, workers refer to PATCO as the proof that you can’t fight and win in this kind of time period.

Certainly, there have been some militant strikes in this period — those at Phelps Dodge (copper mine), or Hormel (meatpacking), or USX (steelmill), or Bath Shipyards, or Watsonville (cannery), for example — but almost across the board, the results have been negative. Even when strikers did not lose their jobs, as those at Hormel or Phelps Dodge did, they went back after many months on strike, only to give up big concessions.

The strike statistics for the last number of years reflect the morale of the working class. Looking at the strikes which involved at least 1,000 workers, there has been a steady decline each year from 1977 to 1986, going from about 250 a year in the mid-1970s to around 50 or less in the mid-1980s.

The results can be seen in the marked lowering of the standard of living of the working class, accounted for by decreases in wages and a high level of unemployment. In the last year, almost one quarter of all union workers took a wage freeze, with another 10% taking actual wage cuts. Even now, today, after 4 years of economic recovery, the official unemployment rate for the country as a whole is still over 6% — over 9%, when discouraged and involuntary part-time workers are counted. In an industrial state like Michigan, it’s almost 11%, and in Detroit, over 16%.

That is, the workers have paid the cost of the economic crisis, so much so that, over the last several years, the profits of the major corporations have reached record levels, despite the crisis.

It is in this context that a strike like the one at Blue Cross has any significance. Obviously, one strike, by itself, doesn’t count for much, even if it were much more important than this one (witness the big miners’ strike in 1978 which, when it did not spread beyond the confines of the mines, did not stop the bosses in other industries; ultimately it did not even stop the mineowners from coming back in later years to take concessions). The real importance of the strike at Blue Cross lies in what it demonstrates about the readiness of some workers to defend themselves in a period when the working class has seemed unable to respond, and about what kind of policy the workers need to pursue in this kind of period.

A Strike Under the Control of the Strikers Themselves

What characterized this strike was that, above all, it was a strike which the active strikers themselves controlled.

The strike, which started last August 31, engaged almost 4,000 workers from four different UAW local unions, working at numerous different Blue Cross offices spread throughout the state of Michigan. The largest of these were the four buildings in the city of Detroit from which nearly 2,500 Blue Cross workers are grouped together in one local union. It was among the workers from these buildings that the strike activity was centered.

From the very first day, up to the very end, the Detroit workers organized daily meetings where all the strikers could come to discuss the problems of the strike, to get information on the progress of the bargaining, and to decide on and organize activities they wanted to carry out to strengthen their strike.

In fact, even before the strike began, there had been meetings held, department-by-department, throughout the three downtown Detroit buildings where the workers discussed the goals they wanted out of the new contract, and whether they were ready to strike to get them. On the night when the old contract expired, 900 workers met just hours before the strike deadline, and decided that if the company stayed at its last offer, they were ready to strike. According to the International Union representatives, this meeting was not necessary, nor was the decision taken even “legal,” since the workers had already “authorized” the union to call a strike if and when the International decided to. But for the workers who were there, it was the meeting where they took the real decision to strike.

On the fourth day of the strike, the strike meeting, which had gathered over 500 workers, took decisions which even further shocked some of the officers of the Local, and above all the representatives of the UAW International, accustomed as they are to presenting to the workers what they decide should be presented. The strikers discussed and voted on the demands they were willing to continue staying out on strike for. Immediately afterwards, they elected a strike committee which included not only union militants, but also rank-and-file workers — whoever was ready to take the responsibility to coordinate and direct their own strike.

When the president of the local, who became one of the main leaders of the strike, proposed that the workers elect their own strike leadership, one of the strongest supporters of this idea was a woman who had been active the year before in the strike of the city workers, which had been broken. In the meeting, she got up to say, “We didn’t want to take the contract last year, but we weren’t organized, and so we had no way to resist when the union stuffed it down our throat.”

It was this Strike Committee which over and over proposed to the active strikers what could be done to organize the strike, and how it could be strengthened. The fact that the strikers had chosen this committee themselves to direct their strike gave it a legitimacy which allowed the workers to have a leadership later on when the union apparatus tried to give orders, effectively attacking the workers’ right to meet, to have information and to decide things for themselves.

Quickly, the strike meetings decided to set up a strike headquarters and then proceeded to establish all sorts of committees to start organizing the various strike activities, including the picketing. The Strike Committee started to publish a strike bulletin, so that everyone would be informed of the decisions taken in the strike meetings. In the very first week, over a thousand different workers came to the strike meetings. The core of the strikers, which at that point was about 350 to 400 people, were active constantly, on the picket lines, in the meetings, trying to get other activities going, making signs and banners, getting coffee and donuts to the picket lines, setting up the strike headquarters, and so on.

Not the Usual Kind of Strike

From the beginning, all of this put the Blue Cross strikers in stark contrast to the long-standing tradition of most strikes today: where the workers are not the ones who make the decision whether or not to strike, being given only the right, a few months ahead of time, to vote to “authorize” the International leadership to call a strike if it wants; where few or, more commonly, no meetings are held; where no solid information is given out on the progress of the bargaining until the final contract offer is presented for the workers’ approval; and where each worker is assigned picket “duty” for several hours a week, that being the extent of strike activity.

On the second day of the strike, the UAW International clearly set out its policy in this regard. It had strikers go clear across town, miles away from Blue Cross, in order to register to get paid strike benefits. During the registration, the strikers were told by a representative of the International union that all they had to do was picket four hours a week so long as the strike went on, and they didn’t even need to worry about that right away — just go home and wait to be called for picket assignments. It was advice the strikers in Detroit ignored.

The desire of big numbers of workers to take on Blue Cross set the tone in the first weeks. There were large and spirited picket lines which made it difficult for the management personnel and the exempt workers (those not in the union, which at Blue Cross are numerous) to drive their cars into the parking structure. For the first few weeks, the picket lines let everyone in the area know that something was happening at Blue Cross. A few picketers were stopping bus and truck drivers, telling them about the strike and asking them to spread the word. Many of the picketers circulated throughout the downtown area, wearing their signs, broadcasting news of the strike. A few went over to the Board of Education headquarters where the teachers, who were also on strike, were picketing.

In the first two weeks, the strike meetings decided on a number of demonstrations. There was one at noontime of 350 people on the day that Owen Bieber, president of the International, came down to have his symbolic picture taken — at that point, very few of the strikers perceived the International as being in any way opposed to what they were doing. On the next day, which was the day the strike meeting had voted on the demands and elected the Strike Committee, 700 strikers gathered in an attempt to completely circle the whole Blue Cross headquarters. In the second week of the strike, when the company proposed to resume bargaining, several hundred strikers gathered to accompany the Bargaining Committee back to Blue Cross headquarters; when, at the last minute, the company moved the bargaining over 30 miles out into the country, strikers piled into cars, and a caravan of 20 cars livened up the countryside that day.

The Ford and GM contracts expired two weeks after the beginning of the strike, although the International had extended the GM contract, with its traditional proposal to make one company the strike “target,” drawing up the pattern contract this year at Ford, and then extending it afterwards to GM. Several members of the Strike Committee tried to convince other Blue Cross workers to go to Ford to talk to the workers there, and while most people weren’t opposed to the idea, neither was any one very enthusiastic at that point. Finally, on the date the Ford contract expired, a handful of strikers went out to Ford’s big Rouge complex. Maybe the most important thing that came out of this is that they discovered that the Ford workers were interested in talking to them about Blue Cross, Ford, and the policy of the union.

Among the Ford workers, there was an opposition to the contract the International brought in — it was almost defeated at the Rouge, and it was voted down in the three plants where union militants organized against it. Perhaps there could have been an opening for the Blue Cross workers to have spread their strike, at that point, but in those early days, while many Blue Cross workers wanted publicity for their strike, few of them thought that their strike could be affected by what other workers do. Many of the strikers, in fact, seemed to feel that their strike would be settled quickly, as soon as Blue Cross realized the workers meant business.

“You Have No Right to Meet”

At the beginning, the apparatus of the UAW International seemed undecided about how to respond to what the workers had taken upon themselves to do. Maybe the bureaucrats were taken a little by surprise by what was happening — for decades, there had not been a UAW strike where the workers organized themselves in such a fashion, not even in those UAW locals where fights against the International’s policy of giving concessions have developed. Probably, the bureaucrats assumed that after a week or two, things would die down. In any case, at the beginning, the strikers were left relatively free to organize and do what they wanted.

After ten days, however, the International moved in to close down the strike headquarters, and stop the daily meetings. When the active workers ignored the orders to stop meeting, the International, and the Local Union officers who were tied to it, moved to prevent any union funds from being used for either a place to meet or any leaflet not approved by the majority of the local Bargaining Committee, which was not in favor of all this strike activity. At the same time, representatives of the International made veiled, or even open, threats to cut off strike benefits, first for those on the Strike Committee, and then when that seemed to have no effect, for all the strikers. Strike benefits for some on the Strike Committee were held up several times. Finally, there were moves made in the direction of putting the Local under the administratorship of the International, perhaps of removing the president of the Local, who had been the person most responsible for proposing to the workers that they do those things which allowed them to control their own strike.

The attacks were accompanied by a spate of red-baiting, focused on the president, who has openly been known as a socialist for a long time. This campaign was fed to the news media, at the same time that the International requested the media to respect a blackout on all news about the strike activity, a request which was honored for several weeks.

An Even More Final “Final Offer”

At the end of the first month of the strike, the company judged it had the strikers where it wanted them. The company had earlier got an injunction which limited the picketing and hung the threat of arrest over those strikers who wanted to make their picket lines into more combative ones, able to forcefully stop the exempts and management from entering the building. Then, one of the most active members of the Strike Committee was fired as a result of a contrived incident: a guard hired from one of the special strike-breaking agencies pulled a knife on the worker, and then called in the police on the worker.

Finally, there was a local union meeting, where those tied to the International had hoped to push the issue of the administratorship. The meeting of almost 700 people had ended in a lot of yelling, threats, and a few physical fights. In fact, the administratorship was finally not even raised, it being clear that it would not pass. But the divisions and the bitterness of the meeting encouraged the company to think that it could come back with whatever it wanted.

Two days after the meeting, the company presented a proposal, which was, for all practical purposes, a restatement of its original contract proposal, with no wage increases, and with practically all the takeaways left intact, insisting once again that this was its “final offer.”

This contract offer angered the rank-and-file strikers. Over and over, we heard it on the picket line: “I haven’t been out here for 5 weeks, just to go back in with less than I had when I came out.” When the company’s contract proposal was taken back to a meeting — this one of over 700 people — the vote was practically unanimous to reject. Even though some members of the Strike Committee, under the pressure of the attacks, or just worn out, had become inactive, new, in some cases more combative, workers were coming onto the Strike Committee. To a certain extent, it was the ordinary rank-and-file workers who were now replacing some of the union militants, who were more susceptible to the idea that they had to follow the “correct procedures.”

Settling Down for the Long Haul

It had become obvious to the workers that the strike would be a long one. They began to look for ways to hang in, searching for part-time jobs, seeking other ways to keep afloat financially. Under money pressures, very few people felt able to come downtown every single day, and so the whole rhythm of the strike began to change. But although the pace slowed down, and although there were fewer workers at any one activity, as the weeks went on, it seemed as though many, or even more, workers were taking part in some aspect of the strike activity.

At the same time, there were now a few more strikers actively trying to look for help from other workers.

Many on the picket lines began to make an effort to find the exempt workers on their lunch breaks and to talk to them, or give them leaflets put out by the Strike Committee to take back in the building. The active strikers tried to contact workers from another Blue Cross Local, the one that was closest to them, which covered a number of offices in the Detroit suburbs. But apart from discussions on the phone with those they knew personally, and the few discussions they could manage when the others came to pick up their strike benefit checks, they never found the way to have much contact. In part, this was because there were practically no picket lines nor meetings in the suburban Local. But it was also because the Detroit strikers weren’t ready to take on the International on this issue, which seemed less important to them than some others. They were able to bring some workers from the other Local downtown to the strike meetings, but the Detroit strikers did not really make the effort to help the suburban strikers set up their own meetings.

A few strikers from downtown began to go to other workplaces to talk about their strike and to try to collect money so they could cover the cost of the leaflets they were putting out to the exempts and to other workers, as well as for their own strike bulletin, which by now was appearing once or twice a week. They also needed money to rent a place to meet, which by this point was in a nearby bar, having been moved several times when the International brought pressure to bear on the owners of other places where they had met.

The Strike Committee put out leaflets, asking for support from other workers and encouraging them to make their own fights. These leaflets began to find their way throughout the city’s workplaces, some of them passed out by the few Blue Cross workers who were ready to go in front of other workplaces. Many more were passed on hand to hand by hundreds of Blue Cross strikers to their friends, family and neighbors, many of whom then took the leaflets into their own workplaces.

The Strike Committee began to organize a series of Saturday demonstrations, hoping to bring down workers from other workplaces in support. These demonstrations were smaller than those at the beginning: several hundreds only, including a handful of workers from other workplaces. Maybe the most important thing about these demonstrations was that because of them, a number of Blue Cross workers were ready, for the first time, to go talk directly to other workers about their strike.

Eventually, the strikers broke through the media black-out. Many of them had repeatedly called the TV and radio and newspapers, some of them had invaded the media offices, others kept trying to talk to reporters anywhere they could find them. Their activity and persistence won over a number of the reporters to their side. Those newspeople more sympathetic to popular causes, seeing the attacks coming down on the strike, opened up their programs or their columns to the strikers.

Other workers began to take notice of the strike. Very little of the activity of the strike could be really seen, but other workers were noticing that finally someone, someplace was standing up to the concessions in a determined way. At that point, it did not seem that there were other workers ready to follow the lead of the Blue Cross workers, but there were certainly many workers hoping that the Blue Cross strikers would do what others had not been able to do.

The strike was also noted by the oppositionists in the UAW, those union militants who generally have opposed the policy of the UAW leadership to accept the concessions demanded by the corporations. The Local Unions where the oppositionists have some influence began to give various kinds of support — invitations to speak at Local Union meetings, money, and even just simple encouragement. Some strikers went to union meetings at these Locals, as well as to a convention of TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), the opposition within the Teamsters Union, to speak of their strike.

And Still More “Final Offers”

Throughout this middle period of the strike, the company spread rumors — that there would be big layoffs when the workers came back, that if the workers didn’t settle soon, they would be out until after Christmas. And more rumors — that the company was hiring temps, that it was farming out work, that it was even about to open the doors, which would have required the strikers to come back or be fired. They also fired another striker, this time in an incident even more contrived than the first one. Clearly the company still believed it could outlast the strikers, waiting for the financial pressures, the attacks, and the rumors to push the strikers to accept a contract filled with concessions.

And the financial pressures were mounting: some workers had already lost their cars, or were forced to move back in with their families, and now, others were beginning to feel the threat of losing their houses. Electricity and other utilities were being shut off. The weight of all this could be seen on the strikers’ morale. Fewer people came to the meetings, fewer were on the picket lines, and the mood on the picket lines was becoming more somber, as the weather began to turn nasty.

Some of the highest-paid, top-classification workers, those closest to management, tried to organize a kind of back-to-work movement. They asked for a revote on the second “final offer,” insisting that the company just wouldn’t give any more. When the revote was held, the strikers, in a meeting of about 450 people, again reaffirmed their determination to stay out until they got a better contract. Nonetheless, for the first time, there were discussions in this meeting which showed that the strikers were finding it more difficult to continue. For the time being, these problems were answered by the stance of the more militant workers: “Do what you have to do — go to the Welfare, if you have to, don’t be so proud — it’s your tax money, take it. Turn the electricity back on if Edison shuts it off. Hide your car, so they can’t repossess it. Stop being so ladylike on the picket lines, don’t worry about being glamorous — we’re in a fight, we have to act like it, we have to get people down here with us who know how to fight, we need some auto workers and some teamsters.”

Cadillacs and Condominiums

Just as it was appearing a little like a stand-off, news broke of a financial scandal which involved the top officers of the corporation, as well as some UAW International officials who sit on the public board which oversees Blue Cross. If there had been a question among the workers about whether they could stay out much longer, this scandal seemed to anger people enough to convince them that they would, no matter what. And now the focus became the gross disparity between what the bosses took for themselves, and what they were offering the workers.

When the company brought in still another rearranged version of its “final offer,” this too was voted down, this time in a meeting of almost 600 angry strikers. After the meeting, which was held miles away from Blue Cross headquarters, more than 350 strikers came down to the headquarters, chanting slogans which contrasted the Cadillacs and the condominiums of the bosses to the measly bonuses offered to the workers.

A few more workers — still a small minority, however — were ready to go to other plants. By this time, the strikers had been to many big Detroit plants and big offices, like the telephone company — repeatedly to about half of them.

Local 160 at GM’s Tech Center, which is one of the locals where the oppositionists have been strong, organized a dinner fund raiser which drew slightly more than 1,000 people and which brought the active Blue Cross strikers in contact with workers from a number of plants in the northern suburbs of Detroit.

As it became clear that the strikers were determined to stay out until they got satisfaction, the International felt constrained to make a certain show. It asked — formally, at least — for financial support for the strikers from all Locals throughout the region, and it moved ahead to call a demonstration after the downtown strikers began to talk about trying to organize another one. By this time still more strikers were ready to go to other workplaces to publicize a demonstration. They spent two weeks going around, preparing for it. All told, there were about 1,200 people, including about 600 to 700 who came from the Local leaderships which are tied to the International.

The exempt workers, and even many of the management personnel, were becoming worn out from the pressures of the strike. A sizeable minority of the exempts were more openly sympathetic to the strikers. When the strikers had leaflets, many of the exempts came back out of the parking structure to the public sidewalk to get them, taking them in and circulating them within hours throughout the buildings by way of the company’s Xerox machines. Independent of the strikers, several exempt workers put out leaflets which also circulated throughout the building, speaking about the need for the exempts to do what they could to make it hard on the company to use them.

Finally, A New Offer ...

In the third week in November, the company came in with a proposal which gave an immediate $1,500 bonus, plus granting wage increases comparable to what the workers had before, given the difference in the inflation rates, and dropping almost all the takeaway demands. This proposal did not satisfy the more militant strikers in the meeting of the Detroit workers where the new contract proposal was discussed. There was still a sizeable minority, in large part made up of the most active strikers, who wanted to continue the strike, feeling that they should get something better after all that time. But the majority (1,679 to 435) voted to go back, feeling on the one hand that they had defended their position, and on the other hand, feeling that they had come to the end of their possibilities. In fact, they were running up against the limits of what one group of workers is able to do, unless they can find the way to engage other workers with them.

Nonetheless, most of the strikers, even most of those who wanted to continue, looked at the strike as a victory of sorts — at least, they had proved they could force management to change its position. The day they went back to work, the whole building seemed to rock with the noise. The strikers forgot about office “decorum” — they took their militancy and spirit back in with them.

As soon as the strikers went back, management announced it was going to delay their first paychecks — until the floors erupted in noise and a definite lack of production. Nonetheless, the company is continuing to probe to see how it can take back what was gained by the strike. There is now talk of lay-offs, only a handful so far, but it marks the company’s determination to reverse the strike. Here, too, the workers have been actively reacting to the proposed lay-offs and reassignments. The Blue Cross workers certainly came out of this strike with more confidence in their own forces — the strike showed them something about their own capacities and their own possibility to control the situation — and up until now they have shown themselves ready to respond when the company tries an attack. Nonetheless, all of this probing by the company shows the limits of a strike like this.

A Brief Balance

Even if the workers were able to defend themselves, such a strike cannot really be called a success. It was a kind of standoff; and even if it’s true that, up until now, workers in the U.S. have fought very few battles and most of the ones they have fought have ended in defeat, a standoff is not the same thing as a victory.

In the situation the working class finds itself in today, those on strike need, above all, to extend their strike if they are not to have this same result — or even worse. (It might have been worse at Blue Cross, for example, without the fortunate chance of the scandal’s erupting when it did, and it certainly would have been worse if the workers had not been able from the beginning to end to have the means to democratically control their own strike.) The strikers at Blue Cross quite obviously were not confronting only the management of Blue Cross. Behind Blue Cross stood all the big corporations in the area, whose own drive for ever greater concessions would have been threatened by a breakthrough at an important company like Blue Cross.

It’s exactly why it is absolutely necessary for workers in a situation like this to spread their strike. Certainly, a minority of the Blue Cross strikers did try to extend their strike. But they were not able to pull other workers out with them, nor even really able to convince very many of the Blue Cross strikers themselves to try to spread their strike.

Nonetheless, it’s likely that the Blue Cross workers got what they did because some of them attempted to go in that direction. The attempts that they made, even if not very successful, nonetheless made their strike a political fact in the greater Detroit area. They broke the news blackout and attacks on their strike and put it in front of other workers. At the time Blue Cross reversed its position, the strike was becoming an issue in the plants. Perhaps that was enough to convince Blue Cross, and maybe more importantly, the other corporations, that the strike needed to be ended and out of the limelight.

Finally, if this particular strike had a different aspect than what we generally see, it was because of what was done to democratically organize the strike and attempt to spread it. In the situation we find ourselves in today, the working class must act as a class or face defeat after defeat. In this situation, the only ones who can really give a prospect to workers ready to fight are those who put their confidence in the class struggle, that is, those who want to see the working class act as a class, to mobilize all its forces when it fights. It is precisely this perspective which the main leader of the strike, the president of the Local, had and which underlay the policy she fought for. And it is because there have been a few militants at Blue Cross, very few, who have advocated that policy to all the Blue Cross workers for years, that when there was a strike it took this unusual aspect.

From Class Struggle/Lutte de Classe, #15

February 1988