by Dave Stratman


Keith Thomas, a machinist at the Boeing plant in Wichita, recently told me a very interesting story. Keith and a handful of co-workers in several Boeing plants organized a rank-and-file caucus, Unionists for Democratic Change (UDC). They exposed the union (International Association of Machinists-IAM) leadership and led the fight against the company. Their numbers grew to about 500 in locals in Wichita and Seattle. There are about 4,000 union members in Keith's plant, out of 8,000 hourly workers.

In the months leading up to their contract expiration in October, 1995 UDC frequently hand-billed their plants to inform members of contract issues. A few days before the contract expired, workers began actions to build solidarity and give management and each other a real taste of workers' power. In Seattle thousands of workers marched on the flight lines and around the plant. In Seattle and Wichita, workers spontaneously downed tools and began to beat on something, anything, that would make noise. At first they did this every hour on the hour. Then they began to do it every half-hour. Then every fifteen minutes. Pretty soon, Keith said, it got so loud in the plant that you couldn't hear somebody shouting in your ear. Management began to run around giving people other things to beat on than their machines or airplane wings. Finally, when the noise became too intense, management left the plant floor, in effect ceding control of the plant to the workers. The workers kept this up for several days. They rejected the new contract and went on strike. Members rejected concessions negotiated by the union. Finally Boeing caved in to sustained worker solidarity.

The story doesn't end here. The company and the union leadership were very threatened by the rank-and-file group. As Keith put it, "the caucus was under attack before the strike, during the strike, and after the strike." Several people had their cars vandalized. One activist had his brake lines cut. During the strike one member of the caucus had his life threatened. Shots were fired in the direction of Keith's house while children were playing outside in the street. An hour earlier a member was told down at the union hall that "UDC needs a good killing."

The level of threats and reprisals became more than many members of the rank-and-file group had bargained for. After awhile the leadership core decided to disband the larger group. They destroyed all their membership lists and computer files, and freed members of any obligations. They informed union officials of their move.

The original core group of four or five is thinking about what to do next. Keith has concluded that it's impossible to reform the labor movement. So what should they do?

Keith's story is unusual for its drama, but its key elements have been experienced by many activists inside and outside the unions. Thinking about his situation brought me back to some of the thoughts that led me to write We CAN Change the World.

I have long felt that we need a revolution in the U.S.—and world—and that anything that stopped short of revolution, such as attempts at reforming the unions, or attempts to impose significant reforms on capitalism, were bound to fail. I have also long felt that building a popular revolutionary movement in the U.S. is very doable, far more than most people realize, and that, the more revolutionary the movement becomes—revolutionary in the sense of truly challenging capitalist goals, values, plans, and power with the values and goals and aspirations of ordinary people—the more popular it can be. My thinking, in other words, was the opposite of the left assumption that to be "revolutionary" means to be isolated. I was starting with some very different ideas about people from the left's and I had some very different notions of revolution.

I also felt that building a revolutionary movement would consist more of reaching out to other working people with the revolutionary message than it would consist of mounting direct challenges to capitalist institutions, such as corporations or union structures. Building the revolutionary movement would in fact pose far more of a long-range threat to the capitalist system than any challenge of union leaders or management of a particular corporation, but it would not bring about immediate reprisals or have the same high personal costs, since it would not pose an immediate threat to specific people or institutions. (NOTE: Keith and his brother, who also works in the plant, think this particular point is incorrect, since "anything we do is a threat to their power and authority." They’ve got the experience, so they may well be right.)

What about Keith's situation? Their success brought down a storm all out of proportion to what many people were prepared for, because it posed an immediate threat to some union hacks who like their jobs and are determined to hold onto them, and who play an important role for management.

Many people in the rank-and-file group were not prepared for the level of reprisal probably for several reasons, but I’d guess that two reasons were these:

1) they thought they were demanding what was only fair and right—that their union should represent them rather than the company—and were surprised when their entirely reasonable demands brought such a response;

2) the level of risk they were taking was out of proportion to the change they thought they would make if they succeeded.

There is plenty of evidence that people will make terrific sacrifices and fight against incredible odds if they find themselves inspired by the goals of the struggle. The Vietnamese prevailed against B-52s and napalm because of their belief in the Revolution. People in this country engaged in bloody struggles to build industrial unionism because they thought that they were taking an important step to changing the world. People in the Civil Rights struggle saw it as a struggle over what it means to be human, and were willing to sacrifice much to achieve an inspiring ideal.

If, however, the fight is not to change the world, but just to make the unions work the way they are supposed to (but never have), it's far more difficult to sustain the struggle. People can easily get cynical and feel, "Why risk my neck for something that isn't going to change things anyway?"

Probably a great many of the people who were joining Unionists for Democratic Change believed, as Keith came to think, that the unions can't really be changed. They were willing to be part of the struggle, however, because they believed they were in the right.

But even if the struggle could have reformed the IAM from within, it still wouldn't have affected the more profound problems of living and working in a capitalist society. The solution didn't match the problem, and it still brought ferocious attacks down on the people involved. The people recruited to UDC may not have spelled all these things out exactly in their minds, but they must have felt them to be true. At this point people very reasonably began to question whether the struggle was worth the cost.

Building a movement to destroy capitalism and create a society which truly reflects the aspirations of most people, though it may sound scary, is actually more practical than trying to reform a union:

1) Building a revolutionary movement means reaching out broadly to other workers, in our own plant or school or office and beyond, to everyplace that people live or work or shop. The focus would not be on going toe-to-toe with union leaders or plant management, but on building the movement. The peo

ple involved would not be coming under immediate attack. (See note above.)

2) While the organizing activities would be low-risk, at least at first, we would be proposing as a goal for the movement the creation of a world that reflects the deepest values and aspirations of the people involved—goals worth fighting for and worth risking all for, should it come to that.

3) With more ambitious goals, our ability to talk about people’s concerns would expand. People have goals as workers, as parents and grandparents, as members of a community, and in other regards. All these areas of life are under attack by capitalism. In all of them, we need to understand the attack more clearly and reach out to more people. As we move beyond dealing only with workplace or representation issues, our ability to reach deeply into people's feelings and to tap their energy and creativity would greatly increase.

4) We would have a real chance of winning. Instead of not trying to win the class war but only trying to make a little adjustment in it, we'd be saying we're going to beat this system, and that the movement in Wichita and Decatur and Detroit is part of a worldwide effort to create a fully human society.

Would a revolutionary movement engage in the kind of militant solidarity action practiced by the Boeing workers? Absolutely. But we would do so as part of building a long-range movement both inside and well beyond the plant, a movement the goals of which the participants were fully aware. People would then be able to turn reprisals to their advantage, to further expose union-company collusion and build the revolutionary movement.

Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-August 1997.