Thirty-five years ago this month, workers at the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio left their positions on the shop floor. The reason for the wildcat strike was the institution by the company of new disciplinary rules and a general speed-up of the manufacturing process. This action by the workers not only ticked off management, it also upset the union bureaucrats, who had promised cooperation from its members regarding the new rules. It wasn't only the new rules that caused the rebellion, but the addition of those rules to an already tedious and backbreaking job. The line speed at Lordstown greatly exceeded that of older plants, and the worker unrest at the plant came to symbolize worker alienation in general. The wildcats also represented the rebellious youthful working-class militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of merely striking over wages and hours, the Lordstown wildcatters and their brothers and sisters in plants of all kinds were contesting the alienation of modern work. Where there was no mechanism to strike, these protests took the form of sabotage and individual outbreaks of resistance.
It's been a while since I worked at a factory. In fact, it's been over twenty years. Before that, I had worked at a brick manufacturing plant and an outfit that made preformed concrete patios. The last plant I worked at was on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. My work involved running a soldering machine, placing resistors in circuit boards and doing touchup soldering on countless circuit boards manufactured for Microsoft and other technology outfits. The pay was dismal and the work came and went, depending on demand. The work was so dismal, in fact, that most of the workers looked forward to the periods of unemployment even though we knew our unemployment checks would barely cover our bills. Just the fact that we wouldn't be facing the daily drudgery was reward in itself. Since that job, I have worked in libraries, only one of which was unionized (although I didn't qualify for union membership because I was classified temporary). Although the work is a distant cry from the drudgery of factory and restaurant work, and libraries are public institutions, the job itself is not immune from the vagaries of the greater economy. Indeed, salaries of those workers without advanced degrees are usually enough to live on, but nobody I know who collects that salary is taking exotic vacations on it.
So, when union organizing has taken place at the institutions I've worked at, I've been quite involved. What I found is that the days of combating worker alienation have been forgotten amidst the concerns that my fellow workers have over job security, livable wages and affordable medical benefits.
Alienation is a given and hoping to overcome it is considered a utopian dream better left to college students who have time on their hands. Despite these concerns, however, many folks seem hesitant to commit even their signature to a union. This hesitation is often based on fear, since employers in both the private and public sectors are known to dismiss those workers who attempt to rouse their fellows into taking more control of their work lives. And, after all is said and done, that's what unions are all about. They aren't about leadership struggles over turf and they aren't about kissing some politician's ass in the hope they will toss the workers of the country some crumbs left after the capitalists and their cronies cut the pie. If we stretch that desire for control beyond our lives at work, then unions can become potent vehicles for social and political change. Imagine a worker's movement determined to end imperial war by refusing to involve its members in the manufacture and shipment of the weapons of war. Imagine a worker's movement deciding that its solidarity is with the immigrants who have been displaced by the forces of capital and demanding full legality and fair wages for their migrant brothers and sisters.
Recently, the House of Representatives passed a piece of legislation that could be the first step towards greater union membership and, consequently, a revived workers movement capable of fulfilling such seemingly utopian dreams. This bill, known as the Employee Free Choice Act, would eliminate a step in the process workers must take to unionize their workplace. As the law currently stands, union organizers must first get at least 35% of the workers in a workplace unit to sign a card stating their desire to be represented by a union. After this number is reached, the union and the employer have a set amount of time to garner enough votes to win an election set by a national or state labor relations board. During the period leading up to the election, union organizers are limited in where and how they may campaign for the union, while employers have what amounts to a free rein in tactics to convince its employees to vote against the union. Although employer intimidation and threats are supposedly illegal, I know that they have existed in every union organizing campaign I have been involved in. Often, just a rumor of intimidation circulated by management is enough to cause the majority of workers at any given workplace to vote against the union.
The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate the election. Instead of the two-step process described above, all that would be required of workers trying to organize a union at their workplace would be a simple majority of their fellow workers signing a card stating their desire to join a union. Watt his means is that the signing of the card would be equivalent to voting in the election. No longer would the employer have the opportunity to intimidate workers into voting against the union. No longer would the employer be able to call mandatory work meetings where threats -- veiled and unveiled -- can be issued to those undecided workers who are leaning towards unionization.
Naturally, this bill is vehemently opposed by major employer associations, the Bush administration and probably a good number of senators. George Bush is already on record saying he will veto the bill should it reach his desk. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) director of human resources policy issued a statement that framed his organization's opposition to the bill in terms of worker freedom of choice. According to the NAM, "The legislation would eliminate employees' freedom to choose whether union membership is right for them and their families in private..." This is utter nonsense. Workers who organize their fellow workers know that the best way to get a union is to allow their fellow workers to make an informed choice in a non-threatening atmosphere. Attempting to do this within the current process is quite difficult, thanks to the upper hand provided management. This bill would level the playing field and that -- plain and simple -- is why employers oppose it.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997). His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is forthcoming from Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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