April 30, 2008

May Day 2008: Strike Against the War

What follows is a letter my friend John Burke has been circulating to friends. John used to blog as "reprieved" a.k.a. "rootlesscosmo", but gave that up. I wish he'd start again; but in the meanwhile I have his permission to reprint this.

I well remember how indignant a lot of antiwar people were at US organized labor's late, feeble, and sometimes dead wrong positions during the Vietnam War. Much of the then AFL-CIO leadership supported the war (though this support grew less vocal as the war dragged on under a Republican administration); so did a lot of union members, notably the building trades "hard hats" who waded into an antiwar rally in Manhattan in 1969. There were exceptions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast and, eventually, the United Auto Workers and a number of public employee unions; there was a labor coalition against the war, which formed a contingent at rallies, bought ads in the print media, and lent support to antiwar candidates.

What there wasn't, though, was any use of labor's economic strength--the strike weapon--to express opposition to the war, and that baffled and irritated some antiwar activists, especially those who didn't know much about labor law or labor history. (I know this doesn't apply to a lot of the recipients of this message; feel free to skip ahead if this is familiar material.) In particular, students from middle-class families weren't aware that under the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, the use of the strike weapon for any purpose except in disputes about collective bargaining agreements is explicitly prohibited. They also may not have grasped the context of Taft-Hartley, which--though labor opposed it and Truman vetoed it, only to be overridden by a Republican-majority Congress--set in stone the main outlines of the postwar, Cold War-era "social compact:" labor would save job action for "pork chop" issues, confine its political action to endorsing candidates, impose a "loyalty" test on union leaders (which led to the expulsion of the Left-led unions from the CIO in 1949) and become a partner in the worldwide struggle against Communism. In return, major corporate employers would recognize unions and accept contracts that included regular productivity and cost-of-living increases; there were occasional disruptions in this cozy arrangement, but strike activity fell sharply from the big upsurge in 1946-47 and stayed low until the "stagflation" and mass layoffs that began in the mid-70's.

So job action against the Vietnam War would have been not only a challenge to the law but a sharp break with the postwar social compact, at a time when that compact's real meaning was thrown into sharp focus: labor was called on to support a Third World military intervention against a Communist-led liberation movement, at a moment when that intervention was producing a flush of prosperity and job growth. (Harry Bridges of the ILWU, when he launched a campaign to recruit new members from high-unemployment communities in response to the growth of war-related Pacific shipping, admitted ruefully that it was blood money.)

But the social compact started falling apart in the 1970's--the war turned out to be a large part of the reason, though I've promised myself not to use the word "dialectical" in this brief survey--and Reagan shredded it after 1980. The Cold War is over, the steady-growth postwar economy is over, union density as a percentage of the workforce is down from 35% to 13% (and less in the once-powerful industrial sector), anti-labor policies have been entrenched at the NLRB for many years, and neither the Carter nor Clinton administrations achieved labor's goal of legislative reform. (How hard did they try? Good question.)

In short, the deal that undergirded labor's qualified support for the Vietnam War has fallen apart.

The postwar social compact was a tradeoff; the other side went back on the bargain. It's time for labor to begin reclaiming its full range of tactical options in support of a robust participation in political life, on an agenda of labor's choosing without the artificial constraints imposed by Taft-Hartley. This will be, inevitably, a gradual process, and it may get ugly; I don't think there are any US Attorneys dumb enough to try to indict the ILWU leadership, but I may be being too generous. (It's a grave failing of mine.)

In any case, the first big crack in the ice is the ILWU's planned coastwide work stoppage tomorrow,

which will also coincide with and support an immigrants' rights rally (and it certainly is refreshing that the immigrants' movement has reclaimed May Day as a day of workers' action; sure, the sectarian Lefties will try to hop aboard the bandwagon, but who cares?) I'll be marching tomorrow, with my United Transportation Union button on, prouder of the labor movement, my movement, than I've ever had a chance to feel in my life. Hope to see you there.

The only thing I have to add is that when John says "my United Transportation Union button", he means "the button of the union I belonged to during the more than a quarter century I worked on the railroads".

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