- Historic Sites
Working For The Union
At a time of crisis for American labor, an organizer looks back on the turbulent fifty-year career that brought him from the shop floor to the presidency of the United Automobile Workers.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
I guess I have faith that sooner or later, for example, the workers from the South are going to say, why the hell are we second-class citizens? Why should we work for wages and conditions inferior to those in the North? And the employers will make mistakes. But you’re right. You get an employer who pays comparable wages and fringe benefits, and it’s hard to organize. But there’s another factor: Some people think that in tough times, workers will come to unions in droves. But that hasn’t been happening in the eighties so far, because you get to a point where things are so bad that workers are easily intimidated.
It doesn’t help unions, though, when unions get beat up and lose strikes like those at Phelps Dodge or Louisiana-Pacific or Continental Airlines or that of the air traffic controllers. Does there come a time when the AFL-CIO or a group of unions is going to say, “We’re not going to lose this one?”
That’s been done, but not too successfully. We’ve got to think about different ways to battle. You know, I’ll bet you that I could have designed a strategy where the air traffic controllers would have won that strike [in 1981], by guerrilla warfare, by work slowdowns, other stuff. And Greyhound [in 1983], maybe, too. We have to look for different tactics now.
Let’s take the Phelps Dodge strike [which has been going on at Morenci, Arizona, and other places in the Southwest, since July 1983]. The guys stop production at the plant, but just for a little while. The thing about any action like that is you can’t sustain it. You’ve got to win it in the first couple of days. By winning it, I mean being able to close the goddamned thing down fast and make the employer come to the bargaining table. You can’t win a protracted battle, because then you get injunctions, and you get people jailed and people sued.
Looking back, is your view of employers any different now from what it was when you were a young man in the DeSoto plant?
Yes. The big employers are different, even though I still get enraged today with the things that used to anger me then. For example, a superintendent or a Remsnyder bawling out a worker in front of his fellow workers—I get just as mad today as I would have in the 1930s. I get as angry about unemployment and deprivation as I did then.
But I think, being objective, that the employers have changed. Not necessarily in their attitudes toward the workers. But they used to think their responsibility began and ended with the stockholders. They had no responsibility to or awareness of the community. That’s changed. It was coincidental with the urban riots of the sixties, and I don’t know what the motivating factor was—it doesn’t matter—but now most of them view their responsibilities differently.
But does it bother you when the auto industry is cutting back, and the workers are losing, and the executives get huge bonuses?
You wonder where the hell their brains are. At one of the last Chrysler board meetings I attended, they fixed up this deal for Lee Iacocca. They gave him one hundred and fifty thousand shares at that day’s price—I figure it was a cool four million dollars or so. Now he’s not in the room when this is discussed. So I get into an argument with these guys on the board about the values in society. That money is I don’t know how many times more than I make in fifty years of work, and here he makes it in five minutes. In addition to the money, I said, it’s the perception of what the workers feel out there, and the general public.
With all of its flaws, the labor movement has played a damned constructive role in America.
When I walked out of the board meeting, the first guy I run into is Lee. I told him what I said, and he sort of brushed it off and says, “Well, I’m not going to get any of it anyway, the kids’ll get it.” When I sat down to lunch, I was still mad, and another board member came up to me and said, “Don’t be so upset, Doug. Wouldn’t you like to see the look on Henry Ford’s face when he reads about this tomorrow?” And lightning strikes. This has nothing to do with money—it’s let’s get even, show Ford that I’m going to be the richest S.O.B. in the auto industry.
In July it will be fifty years since the National Labor Relations Act was passed. What do you think unions have done for this country?
Unions have civilized the workplace, given the workers dignity and selfrespect, and have improved enormously the standard of living of the workers generally, whether you belong to the union or not. The labor movement—or a good section of the labor movement—has played a major role in advancing social causes in our country. We were in the forefront of the civil rights struggle, we were in the forefront of environmental struggles, and all of the others.
I’m not saying the labor movement is without flaws. I look at the Teamsters. I said one time at a press conference—though I shouldn’t have said it—that in order to be eligible to be the president of the Teamsters Union you have to be indicted at least twice. But that’s the bottom side. I think the labor movement, with all of its flaws, has played a damned constructive role in American society. I think our country is better off for it.
What about those guys at the Chrysler plant fifty years ago? What did they think they were going to get by forming a union?