One of the high points of my life

I don’t know why I feel like telling this story now, but I do; it’s the story of a moment–an instant–in my life that I look back on with intense pleasure.

It was the winter of 1990, and I had left the Party some years before, but still considered myself a sympathizer.  In International Falls, there was a wildcat strike against Boise-Cascade, which had brought in non-union workers to build a new paper mill.  For those who don’t know, a wildcat strike is one where the officials of the union say no to the strike, and the workers tell the officials to bugger off.

One of the leaders of the strike was a guy named Dan; a big guy, with a good voice and clear eyes and an easy smile.  Though no longer involved with the movement, I of course saw my parents a great deal, and they were working closely with Dan, so I got to know him.  The greatest bitterness was directed against the leadership of the union, which was leaving them on their own, and in fact actively working against them.  For whatever reason, I got inspired to write a song, and I did.  It was called, “Never Trust a Bureaucrat,” and, really, from a songwriting standpoint, it isn’t one of my best efforts, but it made it’s point.  I played it for Dan, and he loved it.

There was a rally to be held in support of the strike.  The UAW workers at the Ford Plant in St. Paul donated the space for the meeting, and ran the concessions (beer and potato chips, as I recall).  Dan told me to show up, and to bring my guitar.

The speakers were pretty awful.  One was a leader (read: bureaucrat) of the pilot’s union, then striking against Eastern Airlines, and he bragged (bragged!) that they had pioneered the policy of givebacks–that is, offering to the company to reduce wages and benefits.  The other speakers weren’t much better.

Finally, Dan had had enough.  As some other bureaucrat was about to speak, he stood up, walked up to the mic like an army, and started talking.  There was more passion than science in his speech, but there was a lot of passion.  He was mad, fed up, disgusted.  He spoke of the need for a labor party, and he spoke of the need for revolutionary leadership in the unions.  He mentioned my parents by name, and then mentioned me–asking me to come up and sing my song.

I made a decent job of it; there was a line of bureaucrats–the speakers–against one wall, but I focused on the rows of construction workers from International Falls in front of me, and the Ford workers in back of them.  I have no memory of how much or how little applause I got, but as I went to put my guitar away, Dan gave me a nod, and that meant a great deal.

All I was sure of, as I packed up the guitar, was that I really, really wanted a beer.

I walked back to the concession stand.  The guy behind the counter, a Ford worker, gave me a nod and a beer.  I put a dollar on the counter, but he pushed it back at me.  “Your money’s no good here,” he said.

I walked out of the place feeling ten feet tall.

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0 thoughts on “One of the high points of my life”

  1. i was a member of UAW local 20xx for 15 years. i was a union rep. all we saw at our plant was a constant erosion of workers rights and benefits. when the possibility of a strike loomed, the owner threatened to close the plant and move out of state.
    no way to treat a workforce. the union officials were good at fighting over contractual matters, but got progressively worse at contract negotiations. the regional rep was a dumb ass and interested in politics. the word from the UAW was “it’s happening everywhere” and a pall of inevitability settled over the work force.
    you did good.

  2. I’m working with a bunch of labor historians, and this seems to be story of American labor post WWII in a nutshell. Someone let the bureaucrats take over. I blame Taft-Hartley, and Truman’s attacks on Wallace (Henry, not George).

    If there were a union worth joining here, I would, but the union which claims to represent me (by proxy, no less – I’m actually not allowed to join, although the negotiate my contract) actually voted for a contract in which they affirm their lack of a right to strike.

  3. Mike: Taft-Hartley and Truman had something to do with it, but the role of the Stalinists, starting with the US entry into WWII, had a great deal to do with it as well. They’re the ones who pushed through the no-strike pledge, and liquidated the Farmer-Labor Party. Part of the reason McCarthyism was able to do so much damage was that Communism was so associated with the Communist Party in the minds of American workers, and American workers had good reason to hate the Communist Party.

  4. The San Francisco Mime Troupe popularized the story of how labor unions declined in a musical play called “Steel Town,” written and performed in the 1980s. I saw it in San Francisco, but it was also performed throughout the midwest, in a series of factory town gigs.

    The play provided a song-punctuated narrative to the effect that labor unions faced a serious dichotomy after the end of WWII. They could press management for more voice and participation in political marketing and production decisions, or they could press for higher salaries and peripheral benefits. Most of the unions chose to go for the benefit packages and stopped pressing for representation in executive boardrooms — consequently they lost power to influence the policies that manufacturing companies developed in the post-War economic boom .

  5. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s my father went to war against the steel workers union. Trying to organize workers around them instead of through them.

    On some level I never really understood why, he was a blue collar guy, unions I always thought were meant to protect his rights.

    A few months ago when I was there to see him off, and we were sitting around his hospital bed and his best friend told the story about how because he was fighting the union my father would get death threats and led to one evening having him drug out of his car and nearly beaten to death by a group of pro-union workers, people my father worked with 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. People he had known for years.

    I thought I’d ask him why.

    “Pop, why WERE you anti-union anyway? They were protecting your rights weren’t they?”

    He shook his head, he had had several strokes by now and couldn’t talk very well anymore.

    “Union protected union. Had to fight. No one else.’

    So when pop would try to rally workers to fight back for what they wanted, either through strike or rallys and it didn’t coincide with what the union told the the workers they needed, apparently in the meetings they would villify my father by name or lump him together with the ‘evil management’.

    It wasn’t long that those people in those meetings believed the villifying and acted with knuckles and rage.

    It kinda made me realise that any organization like that, which requires money to run and followers to exist has so much self interest to keep running that all too often, the decisions made aren’t necessarily in the best interest of the workers.

    Not saying there can’t be good unions, just that leadership should be workers themselves, not some uninvolved 3rd party.

  6. “Not saying there can’t be good unions, just that leadership should be workers themselves, not some uninvolved 3rd party.”

    I’ll sign my name to that. And, if a union official has to be full-time, he should never be paid more than the average of the workers he represents.

  7. “And, if a union official has to be full-time, he should never be paid more than the average of the workers he represents”

    I agree too. But this in itself does not solve the problem. While that will deter those who are motivated by money, it could attract those who are motivated by power alone. So going by that, how do you deal with the “power corrupts” problem?

  8. You tell a great story as always!
    As a former factory working, picket line manning, union voted out survivor, I can relate. Sadly, our union business agent could not actually relate to the line.

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