LET’S BE PRACTICAL
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
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
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
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
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.
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
published in New Democracy Newsletter, July-August 1997.