Local 848 Made National Union History
When Carroll Butler became President and B.J. Meeks became Chairman in early 1984, the union was facing a dire challenge to its proud existence. The Pentagon had encouraged all military contractors to cut their labor costs. Worse, there was a national trend of "takeaway" contracts that was hitting every industry. At least one union, the air traffic controllers, had been totally destroyed by the policies and orders of President Ronald Reagan. The largest aerospace local in the UAW had tried striking but was defeated by the McDonnell Douglas Corporation in California.
LTV took a hard line in negotiations. They demanded major cuts, the elimination of Cost of Living Allowances (COLA), and a two-tier wage system that would have split the workforce in two. When the membership rejected their "offer", LTV implemented it anyway. At the same time, they cut off dues checkoff in an attempt to starve the union into submission.
After 40 years of relative labor peace in America, there were few union leaders capable of standing up to the employers' onslaught. But President Butler and Chairman Meeks agreed with the Assistant Director of Region 5, Jerry Tucker, that an innovative fightback strategy might work at LTV.
They made arrangements to collect dues by hand. Solidarity rallies, union songs, fund raising activities, and brash leaflets became regular union activities. The membership was asked to "work to rule". They would not go on strike, although the company was insisting that they try it, nor would they lie down for what the company had imposed.
Part of the strategy was to stop working overtime, even though LTV felt that they had the right to force anyone to work overtime on almost any work schedule. When a few members were fired for standing up against the overtime demands, there were large walkouts. Eventually, 65 Local 848 members were fired. Undismayed, the "victims" renamed themselves "victors" and went to work as a special solidarity committee to carry out the union's strategy.
After a 15 month fight, the Butler-Meeks-Tucker team overcame the company's takebacks and won the best contract in the aerospace industry. The 65 "Victors," formed a line on July 5, with Meeks at the front, and marched back into the plant to work. They also picked up checks covering all but 3 months of the back pay since their firings.
Acclaim for the local spread beyond the UAW and was written up in union publications nationally. A "New Directions" movement was launched to try to get the entire UAW to adopt fightback methods. The tactics that our local pioneered in 1984-85 were copied all over America.
by Gene Lantz
(a story of the 1984-85 contract fight between LTV Corporation and UAW 848, written in July, 1985)
I wrote this little pamphlet right after the 1984-85 contract fight between LTV Corporation and UAW 848. I was among the 5 union activists fired in May for having stood strong for the union. After that, I participated in the fight almost on a daily basis.
I was never allowed into high-level meetings, but observed the entire struggle from the front lines. These are my views.
(Dedicated to the New Solidarity Fund at United Auto Workers Local 848 in Grand Prairie, Texas. All income generated from this booklet, and all donations that it moves people to make, are hereby committed to go into that same fund.)
From March of 1984 into July, 1985, the hourly workers at the LTV Aerospace plant in Grand Prairie, Texas, participated in a struggle of great historical importance. I was involved directly in most of the events as a union activist.
When an important thing happens, somebody ought to write it down so we can all learn from it.
To say that the membership of United Auto Workers Local 848 was unprepared for a major challenge in the Spring of 1984 would be the grossest kind of understatement. Even to say that we were caught flat-footed is insufficient. We were down, on our backs, dead asleep! Unaware and totally unprepared!
Companies and government officials had conspired for decades to divide union leadership from their members. In the period after WWII, U.S. Industrial supremacy in a world prostrated by war had aided the process. To outward appearances, U.S. unions appeared well off, but they were losing the very source of their strength, the trust and confidence of their constituents.
The post-war return of full competition from other industrialized nations (mid 1970s) found the unions unprepared to cope with the bosses' offensives. Almost all union activity had become proscribed by law, often with the cooperation of union leadership. The most militant trade unionists had been driven out or silenced by fair means or foul.
As automation, imports, and the Reagan policies ate up jobs, there were more layoffs and threats of layoffs that coerced unions into accepting concessions.
There were general problems with the union membership that would be hard to overcome. Their lack of experience in the union movement and lack of understanding of historical background were tremendous handicaps. Another problem that may have been even worse was the general "machismo" that affects Texas workers perhaps even worse than elsewhere.
Machismo is more than the male chauvinism that stands out as one of its most repulsive features. it is a bosses' ideology through and through; pernicious and divisive among workers who have to stick together and embodying such obvious boss-inspired tenets as disregard of health and safety. The "macho man" stands alone, without help from women, minorities, safety regulations, insurance companies, unions, or any of the other things that the bosses do not like!
Problems were more than ideological. Even the union-minded workers were divided into the electricians union, the guards, unorganized salary people, and Local 848. We had about 30% non-member scabs. The company could pick us off one at a time, and that is what it did.
A particularly important union fight that should have warned Local 848 was at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in California. After a tough 16-week strike, workers were forced back to work under a setback contract. Many of them were not able to return to work immediately at all, as new laws enabled the company to "permanently" replace them while they were on strike. Great dissatisfaction with the union was reported, but there were no attempts at Local 848 to help the California workers nor learn the lesson of their fight.
The LTV Corporation, on the other hand, was getting ready for a serious scrap. The company was reporting record profits for 1983 and projecting equally stupendous earnings in 1984 for their aerospace plants in Grand Prairie, but there were two ominous signs that things might not be so auspicious for the overall holding company. Their new holdings in the steel industry were not paying off well. Without help on import control from the government, they stood to take a beating in steel. At the same time, their number one ace-in-the-hole with the Reagan administration, former Chief Executive Officer Paul Thayer, was suffering through a personal scandal with criminal overtones. Without Thayer, a rock hard supporter of the Reaganists, LTV might not get the help they needed from the government.
Nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen. The impossible came to pass. The unpredictable was the norm. Ordinarily, contract expiration in March, 1984, would have meant a few secret sessions between the Negotiating Committee and the company, then a mass meeting at a local high school where union representatives would brag about the great accomplishments and the membership would grumblingly accept. Afterwards, the regular union elections would be held and either the "ins" or the "outs" would triumph, depending on how willing the membership was to continue course. The International Representatives, who did most of the negotiating, were not affected by the local elections.
What most of the membership did not know was that the Pentagon had informed Aerospace companies that they needed to cut into union benefits in 1984. McDonnell Douglas had already tried it, with some success. Consequently, LTV stonewalled their way through the negotiations and refused to come to any kind of an agreement. At the meeting that would ordinarily have been a ratification meeting, each Committee member as well as the International Rep urged the membership to vote down the company's proposal and empower the union leadership to call a strike when they deemed necessary. The membership did.
The way the law is worded, companies can claim that negotiations have reached an "impasse" and therefore they can implement their lat proposal. Reagan-inspired courts have been letting the companies interpret the law their own way. LTV decided to impose their plan on the workers.
Here are a few of the things that were wrong with it: It imposed a two-tier wage system which would divided the new-hires into a separate employment category with lower wage rates throughout their employment. It threw Cost of Living Allowances (COLA) out altogether. Wages raises and benefits were reduced. Memorial Day was eliminated as a holiday and dues checkoff was eliminated.
This last was a dead giveaway that the company hoped to destroy the union completely. The entire package was deliberately presented to the membership in a manner that was designed to confuse them about its value. Management aggressively termed the package a blessing to the workers and claimed blatantly that there was "no takeaway."
The workers were subjected to the chilling experience of being called into conference rooms to have the new situation "explained" to them by members of the company's Labor Relations Department. The meetings were characterized by nervous quiet. If someone asked a question on technical aspects, it seemed to corroborate the company's right to do this to us. If they asked a question about the union or workers' rights to oppose the new plan, Labor Relations people stonewalled. The overall result, predictably, was to make the workers feel hopelessly weak against such institutionalized determination.
Asking around among the workers for a course of actio would result in shrugts of the shoulders, grimaces, and comments like "Well, I guess there's nothing we can do -- the company ahs already implemented it." But, however slowly, the union leadership was beginning to form a response. Region V assistant Director Jerry Tucker began to come on the scene. He brought with him a basic idea of resistance.
We were not really prepared to go on strike, Brother Tucker said. Those who were being objective wholeheartedly agreed. The recent failure at McDonnel Douglas was fresh on our minds, and we felt that, in Right-to-Work (for less) Texas, we had even less hope. Brother Tucker told us to organize ourselves into a Solidarity Committee that would direct our activities while working without a contract.
Thus was formed the loose group known as the Solidarity Committee. It had no independent existence outside the union leadership and its decisions could not be officially implemented, but it provided at least a format for involvement of the membership. In reality, it could do little except implement Brother Tucker's plans, but it was nevertheless a way to get involved that had never existed in this Local Union before.
In addition to being strategy sessions, Solidarity Committee meetings were a way of bringing information from the various departments of the factory to the union leadership. At the beginning, 200-300 workers would attend. Meetings almost always started off with "O.K., who's got something?"
Messages from the membership were usually inspiring rhetoric rather than being actually informational. A few meaningful questions would be asked and Brother Tucker, or whoever presided, would be carefully listened to. The next day, inside the plant, hundreds of workers would find out the latest pronouncements.
The second strategic move of the union leadership was to provide a way for the union to collect its dues. In a clear effort to extinguish the union, the company had cut off its computerized dues checkoff system. If the union would survive, it would have to collect its own dues -- a relatively simple administrative duty that the union and membership were totally unprepared to carry out.
Even though other suggestions were made, the only provisions made for dues payment were to open the hall on certain days and ask the members to come in voluntarily,. Even though this approach was clearly doomed to failure, and more serious proposals were made, the process would be the only provision for dues collection for the next several months. Whether it was an error of commission or one of omission, the dues-collection process nearly killed Local 848.
Actions of the union or of its leadership are tightly proscribed by law. This is less true of rank and file organizations such as 848's Solidarity Committee. The Solidarity Committee, meeting in late March, began to call (in so many words) a general slowdown in the plant. This time honored traditional weapon of workers everywhere was so legally perilous that no one at any time actually stood up and called for it in the name of the union. But by a million references, its actuality became clear. Sabotage, in the sense of destruction of materials, was never mentioned at all.
Part of slowdown meant that all workers should refuse to work overtime. In aerospace, not working overtime is a serious threat to the company. Foremen alternately threatened and cajoled key workers into taking overtime, up to including working extended hours every day, including weekends, for months at a stretch.
Local 848 had never won a provision against forced overtime. Therefore, we were conditioned to think that if the company followed procedures consecrated in previous contracts, they could impose "mandatory" overtime on us whenever they wanted. Those who refused to work this overtime were likely to be fired just as if they had missed regular workdays.
Brother Jerry Tucker and other union leaders explained time and time again that, without a contract in force, such "mandatory" overtime did not exist, and the company's behavior regarding overtime would be governed by labor law in general.
At the time the Solidarity Committee was founded, only a few of its members were in departments who were on "mandatory" overtime. They realized immediately that they were on the hot seat. Some of them asked the Solidarity Committee to change its ruling so that only "voluntary" overtime would be turned down-- at least until the company had felt enough of a squeeze to bring more departments into the "mandatory" overtime category.
But the general sense of the Solidarity Committee, egged on by macho speeches of a few members, declared that ALL overtime must go; thereby sentencing a few workers to call the company's bluff alone.
Within the plant, solidarity meetings began to be organized during lunches and break time. Usually, someone would give a short, inspiring speech. Someone else would ask everyone to pay their dues, then all would sing the union anthem, "Solidarity Forever." Loretta Bell, a feisty Black union activist, soon began to distinguish herself as the best song leader, and one of the few who actually knew the words to the simple chorus.
Those were inspiring and heady moments within the factory. They showed that workers could do something, even if it was only to conduct a simple meeting, besides lay down and accept what the company was doing to them.
In the midst of this turbulence, union elections had to be held. Hardly anyone campaigned on any issues relating directly to the struggle. One candidate reminded the membership that he had supported a motion to ban alcoholic beverages from the hall. Others spoke obscurely of their qualifications and past positions held.
But beneath the routine of union elections, people were asking what the different candidates felt about the company's takeback, and the elections developed, even though hidden from view, into a referendum on what we were going to do next.
The Local President, Negotiating 'Committee Chairman, and those seen as close to them were (according to rumors only) in support of accepting the company's proposal rather than continuing a fight. All were thumpingly defeated in the election. The new President and Chairman were seen as those ready and willing to carry on a battle. The actual positions of neither group can be corroborated one way or the other, but the Solidarity Committee received unceasing cooperation from the new central officers.
Meanwhile, the solidarity activists on the front lines were beginning to receive warning slips that might add up to dismissal. Foremen were using whatever logic or rhetoric possible to get their people to come in for overtime. It became clear to many that the company's plan was simply to destroy the union and disregard all rules when they stopped following the past procedures concerning "mandatory" overtime and still insisted on having everybody come in on threat of dismissal.
There was a great soul-searching going on among those few upon whom this heavy burden had fallen. As it turned out, many of the loudest and most macho were those who ducked the issue altogether. The ones who stood up to the threats tended to be the contemplative ones who asked only that the union and the Solidarity Committee be clear in their support before they jumped off to face the Dragons of Unemployment.
Many of the most shrill demagogues declared, time and again, the company would never "dare" fire anyone refusing to work overtime. All that was lacking on our part was "balls," it was declared. As the dreaded white (warning) slips began to be issued to the stalwarts who refused overtime, a few showed their defiance by pinning them onto their union hats. Some had as many as three or four of these mirthful decorations.
All assurances notwithstanding, most of the workers in the plant expected firings, and they were not disappointed. On May 23rd, when I arrived at work, I learned that R.E. Richards had been called for a special meeting at the Labor Relations office. Word spread like wildfire, and when Richards showed up around 7:30 A.M., there were dozens of others who had walked off the job to be with him. The idea of accompanying people to Labor Relations had been worked out in advance. Theoretically, the company would find it so disruptive to call individuals in that they would cease the practice. However, as the day wore on and the trips to Labor Relations began to add up, the company was successful in intimidating more and more people to stay at their workplaces. During that same day, Brother Dick Bradberry and I were called in turns for special warnings. That afternoon, we were called in again. By the second time I had been called, union leaders on the scene had stopped asking people to follow us in. Consequently, we had to go alone except for official union representation.
Getting fired is not an easy thing to live through, but it is easy to describe because I had nothing to say. I thought of several angry denouncements and a few bitter jokes as I listened to the management representative go over the details with the union man, but no one asked me anything. Afterward, shaking inside, I helped file my grievance with Committeeman Harold Riddle. Brother Bradberry was in process of being fired before my grievance was finished. Then my former foreman conducted me back to my work area where I cleaned out my toolbox and was checked out by a company representative. Friends waved or dropped by to speak encouraging words. I was able to pass out some of my home made tools to friends, and I passed on the record book that I had been using to keep track of special Solidarity Fund contributions in the unit.
Another friend, forklift driver Williams, helped me get my toolboxes into my car and I drove home; sick to the point of nausea.
That evening, I learned that Bob Mason, who had thirty years' experience with the company and could have easily ducked the whole situation by retiring, was fired from the sheet metal department. They got Richards when he came in for graveyard shift. The company had drawn blood.
GETTING FIRED AND STILL FIGHTING
From the day of the first firings, the blowhards began to be conspicuously absent from meetings. Talk about "balls" died off awfully fast. The rest of our struggle would be characterized by serious people doing serious work. We passed through false leadership like Kleenex tissues after the firings actually began on May 23rd.
So dumbfounded and frightened was I after being fired that I completely forgot that any contingency plan had been developed. I slept late the next day, then sleepily called the union president, Brother Carroll Butler, in hopes he might have something for me to do that would give me replacement for my lost sense of direct. "Lantz, what are you doing at home? Hurry in here!" he told me to my undying gratitude!
I hurried to the union hall, where a solidarity rally, complete with television crews and newspaper reporters, was in progress!
The Hall was full of supporters and well-wishers. Most of them had walked off the job in a protest walkout. I remembered, finally, that we had agreed in the Solidarity Committee to conduct a walkout anytime anyone was fired.
But as I sat there listening to fiery speeches and serious, deliberate explanations, I counted the turnout. There were fewer than 300 people there from a membership of close to 3,000 and a total bargaining unit (hourly workers in the plant) of well over 4,000!
As I had feared, the Solidarity Committee did not have full support from the membership even for a walkout of a few hours' duration! In terms of immediate action to turn around the takeback situation and get a decent contract, we were virtually powerless! From that point on, our only hopes were long-term education and organization.
Even though the strategic situation was far from good, the infectious air of the protest rally took over the three of us "firees" (Bradberry, Mason and myself) in attendance. I gave my own version of a rousing speech, telling those assembled that I had not lost my job the previous day, but I had lost it in March when the takeback proposal had cancelled all our union protected jobs.
TV screens that night were full of the three of us with our arms around each others' shoulders, fists held high, and singing out the chorus of "Solidarity Forever."
It looked great on TV, but even the newscasters knew that our struggle was far from over.
Channel 8's reporter pointed out that a proposed walkout on Memorial Day would be the real test of union strength.
For walking out to our protest rally, singer Loretta BEll, Haydee Mayorga, and Vanita Ayala were fired on May 25th. The three women, an African American, a Mexican American, and an Anglo seemed to have been deliberately chosen as representatives of all the workers. The threat of firing now hung over all Solidarity activists, whether they had received previous warnings or not.
Tim Burch, a union steward, had been fired before the Solidarity Committee was formed. With him, there were now seven firees. I urged them to form a "Firees Committee" to work with the union to win a contract and to win our jobs back. We had been promised that, if we were victimized, the union would sign no contract until we were brought back and made whole.
Thus the Firees Committee, later called the Victors' Committee, was born. Tim Burch, as the senior firee, took on the job of chairperson. I was later elected Secretary as the need for records became evident. The Committee would meet almost every week until we regained our jobs and thus became the most dedicated committee in the union that had regular meeting times, democratic operation, and deadly serious intentions of getting a victory.
Mike Martinez and Benny Mendez were soon fired from Assembly, and Ralph Taylor of PCU (forklift drivers and stockchasers) was fired on June 7th.
Memorial Day was a complete disaster. In previous contracts, it had been a holiday, but had been taken away as part of the company's take backs. Many union members still expected to have the day off, and it had been generally understood that there would be a walkout, or at least a "sickout" on that day. However, after the first firings, apparently the union leadership thought better of the idea and called it off. No one took full responsibility, and even the firees, who were by this time spending most of their days at the Hall, knew for sure whether it was a workday.
As a result, some took the day off and some didn't -- the worst possible example of a union local's failure to do its fundamental job of organizing the workers. Although no official explanation was printed, the finger of blame passed through all the rumors and scandal mongering in the union and in the plant . The passing of Memorial Day took away the last hopes of all who hoped for a quick settlement. A few gave up entirely.
As far as anybody knew, the general strategy was still the same. Dues collection was still voluntary, no one was supposed to work overtime, in-plant rallies continued. The Firees were adding to the equation now by organizing activities outside the plant. The June 17 membership meeting notes tell a lot aobut what is going on:
The list of new members was postponed until the following month for administrative reasons. Committee reports indicated that all is well. Union Trustee Roland Wingate reported that the Solidarity Fund was doing well. Sisters Loretta Bell and Haydee Mayorga announced that the Firees will lead a demonstration in front of the plant on June 28th.
A Solidarity meeting was planned in one of the company parking lots at 5:50 AM on June 19th. Members were urged to pay their dues. A motion was made to prepare a list of all members who are not paying their dues...
This last item was among the first indications that all was not well with our volunteer dues collection system. However, many of the members, still exceedingly confident about winning the struggle, were calling for punishment to be meted out to wrongdoers rather than for the long-term educational effort that was really necessary.
There were calls for the resignations of union officers who had slacked in the face of the enemy and calls for reprisals against anyone who worked over time as well as threats against delinquent dues payers. Machismo was far from dead and continued to foul the ability of union members to carry out serious strategic planning.
On June 17, motions were made and passed to remove union leaders; but the actions were long in coming. A few resigned on request, others resigned without even being asked rather than face the company's wrathful firings.
The next great test of the ongoing strategy of the Solidarity Committee came on June 28th, when a general walkout was declared in protest of the firings of six workers on June 27th. The response was not as large as previously, and the next day, June 29th, the company cut another 35 workers away from their only source of income. They added five more on July 2nd. After these firings, there were no protest walkouts and that particular aspect of the Solidarity strategy was dead even though its corpse remained in the way for some time to come.
Even as my expectations sank through the floor, I was encouraged at all the new enthusiasm brought into our Firee Committee. They came in fresh and ready to fight. Some were relieved, even delighted, to have been victimized by the company. They had been worrying about being fired for more than two months; its coming seemed to diminish their worries. Some were also happy to be able to devote full time to the fight rather than having to go to work at all.
The most outstanding contributors to the LTV struggle came from this Firee group. Even though they were not "insiders" to the negotiations or top level union decisions, they wholeheartedly gave their lives over to winning this struggle. Several of them distinguished themselves for skill and ability in addition to the tremendous courage they had already shown.
A note should also be made about the Victors (from this point on they insisted on this more hopeful title) families. Many of them were to spend their off hours in the hall. They organized fund raisers and picketed with their spouses. Even the children made contributions. Sister Joann Hamm, James' wife, organized a major fundraiser. Sister Shirley Pinson and her children supported Victor Gary Pinson at every single activity. Many others made contributions. From June 29th on, the Victors Committee was a major, perhaps even decisive, force in the struggle at LTV. Only a few more workers would be fired during the long struggle.
Sustaining the Victors and their families suddenly became a major problem for the union. All of them had been promised full strike benefits from the UAW plus an additional $99 per week from the Solidarity Fund being collected in the plant. Solidarity collections were set at $3 per member per week, but even that tiny amount exceeded the membership's union consciousness and the organizational ability of the union to collect it.
The Victors went "on the gates" every Friday afternoon for the duration of the fight. At first, we tried to keep our heads up about it and discussed it in professional terms. But only a few weeks passed before the term "begging bowl" began to creep into our conversations about it, and "going out to beg" became the regular slang for gate collections.
Strong, brave, and determined people are not characterized by the bluster we had seen earlier, but by their willingness to do whatever is necessary. It was hard for every one of us to stand out at those gates; so hard for some that they could not do it at all. Only a few were able to face it each and every Friday. Even when they appeared for gate collection, they would not ask for the money. Self-consciously, they would talk quietly among themselves. A few times, they might glance fiercely at one of the worst5 scabs or even say something in muted tones in response to a taunt; but in general we just stood there with our little plastic bucket "begging bowls" and endured what was easily the most shameful experience of our adult lives.
Most of the passing workers disregarded us. A few acted embarrassed. Some made a one-dollar donation with great flourish. Some cruelly and cynically threw in their small change!
But there were always a few stalwarts inside the plant who had been collecting solidarity contributions in envelopes throughout the week. They would bring a dozen or so envelopes, mercifully, and drop them into our buckets without comment. A few would then stand solidly behind the Firees and perhaps even offer a word of encouragement or a description of a company failure or a worker's minor triumph inside the plant.
"They can't get their production out," we were assured a thousand times. "They think we're beat, but we got news for them hey?" they would tell us. The Victors would pass the time with them just as if they were still teamed within the factory and they were completely unconcerned about our chances.
Only among ourselves, and even then in secret, did the Victors assess our real chances and say what we really thought. The outlook was often gloomy and bitter feelings would be exposed. The name of so-and-so who had let us down inside the plant would be disparaged in every possible term, particularly when so-and-so was a union officer.
But the money from the gate collections, ranging around $1200-$1400 per week (a few cents per worker in the plant) showed objectively that the main news was bad. At higher levels, our union officers worked to bring money into the Solidarity Fund by getting contributions, some of them sizeable, from other UAW locals. They also helped the Victors with fundraising activities such as the giant carnival/yard sale that we held on July 21-22, 1984.
Whether we were selling pastries or household articles, President Butler always found a way to slip extra money into our fund from his own wallet. He also made it a point to buy extra food for virtually anyone at the hall during lunchtime. In a hundred little ways, he let it be known that he understood the commitment that the Victors had made and sympathized with it in a very personal way. During our fund-raising carnival, he was the central attraction in the dunking booth. Anyone with the price of three baseballs could drop him off his perch and into the water! President Butler is a large man with a lot of patience, dignity, and quiet persistence, but he showed that he was like the Victors in that he was ready to do anything to win this fight.
It is very painful for me to write about our Friday afternoons "on the gates," and now I am dreading the telling of an even harder part of our regular Victors' duties. Even after the wholesale firing of forty workers, our strategy of "no contract -- no overtime" remained officially our policy. We had picketed the plant a number of times, imploring the workers to refuse overtime.
At one of our meetings, I made the motion that we begin regular weekly picketing on Saturday mornings as the overtime workers began to arrive. I reasoned that we would stop some of them and get the names of the rest so that they could be punished afterward. The idea passed with enthusiasm and we started a regular routine which was to wrench our very souls before we would finally give it up.
We made our own signs. Mine pictured a razor blade marked "overtime" and asked "Why Cut Your Own Throat?" I still maintain it among my most precious possessions.
I carried it, virtually every Saturday morning, from early July through December. I carried it through heat and cold, through hunger and sickness. I carried it determinedly, back and forth across in front of the main gate entrance. I clenched it and kept my eyes forward while hundreds of workers, greedy for overtime pay and completely unconcerned about their long-term welfare or the welfare of anyone else, passed across that picket line. Back and forth I walked while elected union officers and even one executive board member walked across that picket. I carried it while the former machismo blowhards and the loudest people at union meetings went in for overtime pay. I carried it while men that I had known and worked with for years walked by and stabbed us in the back. That sign seemed to be my best friend. Sometimes it was my only friend, keeping me aware of its presence as it did by catching the wind and altering my pathway back and forth across that entranceway.
As they stalked into the plant for their overtime pay, some passed in tears. A few taunted us. One handed us a dollar by way of atonement! Most of them kept their faces down and their motives to themselves, but literally hundreds of them passed each and every Saturday morning!
On several occasions at Firee's meetings, I motioned that Saturday morning picketing be dropped. The strategy had passed from favor in the union and among local leaders. If they carried out membership demands that they fire all union officers who crossed our lines, they would have devastated their own ranks and removed some of the most knowledgeable officers in the union.
It was no easy matter to get the determined Victors to stop a tactic once started, but in late February, after cold and demoralization had worn our little Saturday morning band down to no more than seven, we finally abandoned the tactic. We had carried it out, virtually without support and on our own, for nine months!
Still undefeated, the Victors were to lead the union forward to victory in the months ahead. How they were able to endure the meetings, the fund raisers, the special picketing, the press conferences, the gate collections, Saturday picketing, and the flurry of deliberate slanders and demoralizing rumors that swarmed around us forever is more than I can figure out or understand. The reason why they did it is easier for me to explain. They were heroes!
FALSE HOPES AND HARD TIMES
The Dog Days of the LTV struggle were surely those between July 1984 and January 1985. During that period our support as shown by the number of people voluntarily paying their dues sank to an all time low. Money ran out in the Solidarity Fund so that Victors' families more and more had to face want and, even worse, the possibility that they would never again have normal lives as they had known them. Some of them abandoned the struggle completely and found other jobs. Others tried to find jobs but couldn't because they carried the stigma of the LTV struggle with them. A few began to fight among ourselves.
To keep our hopes alive, e fed them false dreams and cockeyed theories. A few of us optimistically believed that we were going to "hook up" with other Aerospace struggles at Bell Helicopter or at General Dynamics, both in our area. When that fell through, we hoped that the Presidential election in November would be the staging ground for an overall union strategy to bring national pressure to bear for settlement of all contract negotiations. Others thought that the full force of our mighty union would bring the company to its knees just as soon as our top leadership dispensed with Reaganism at the polls. It seems laughable later on, but such hopes were the fuel that kept some of us going through those long and hard months.
The two UAW locals at Bell Helicopter did get a contract that was explained to us as being pretty good. The company locked them out for a short time, but their union participation was close to 100%. At General Dynamic, they not only shut down the plant but made headlines by stoning cars that tried to get in. Both contracts were settled in short order without great losses by the workers.
The General Motors contract dominated the headlines for some time. The union claimed a victory at the end of the process, but there was dissension in the ranks. Reagan's re-election was a bitter pill for those trade unionists hanging on by our fingernails.
In October, our Grievance Committee, which is basically the same as the Negotiating Committee, began processing grievances again just as if they had settled on a contract. For some of us, still standing at the gates on Fridays with our "begging bowls," it was hard to understand how union reps and workers inside the plant could be settling petty grievances over promotions and shift changes. Weren't they concerned that we didn't have any jobs at all?
We gained a little bit of insight into 848's and the labor movement's problems when some of the Victors went to the union's training center at Black Lake, Michigan, in October 1984. I listened to the teachers and some of the major leaders, even UAW living legend Victor Reuther, say in private and public discussions that there was no single, coherent program developed by labor leadership for the crisis confronting American workers. We were learning as we stumbled along, and that made the struggle at 848 seem even more important than ever.
Back in Grand Prairie, it was hard to see progress being made on our struggle, but it was there all the same. union members were learning how to contactr one another and, more important, how to organize simple functions. In August we held a pretty good rally in downtown Dallas against Reaganism. Virtually all our activities were well covered in the press, and we had a lot of activities. Most of them were either initiated by the Victors or counted on the Victors to carry them out.
The company launched a particularly vicious offensive on the morning of October 19th. They posted "No Trespassing" signs all around their gates and let it be known that they were not going to permit anybody to come onto their parking lots to collect Solidarity money. This was a real threat to our fund. Consequently, the first victors to come in for Friday gate collections made up their minds to stand up to it -- they headed straight for one of the company parking lots! Guards and local police arrested them in full view of hundreds of LTV workers. They spent the next several hours in jail, then returned to a heroes' welcome at our union hall.
Brothers W.D. Bradberry, J.D. Morgan, G.J. Pinson, F.K. Walls, J.M. Garcia, H. Sargent, Jr., B. J. Silva, John Chatham, J.D. Cates, R.C. Melton, Robert Murray, D.B. Davis, Tim Burch, C.F. Mullinix, B. Mendez, and J.Z. Linicomm had risked jail sentences, big fines and permanent criminal records to maintain their fight against LTV. The union launched a $3.6 million civil liberties lawsuit against the company.
To raise money, the Victors sold smoked meat, cracked pecans, and Cabbage Patch dolls. Brother Joe Silva could think up fundraising ideas faster than anybody.
Negotiations were extremely minor and almost totally insignificant. The company met with the union for 14 minutes on July 9th, for example.
Steward Mike Brinkley and his family gave $1,000 at one time to the Solidarity Fund.
The Reorganization Committee was begun in earnest during January, 1985. It was long overdue. Every measurable indication of union strength at LTV was down to its lowest ever: attendance at meetings, collections to the Solidarity Fund, participation at special events outside the plant, in-plant meetings, and most important of all -- dues collection!
As early as the previous March, suggestions had been made that we take a more realistic approach to dues collection than just expecting voluntary appearances at the union hall by eager-to-pay members. It had also been suggested that we move to a computerized accounting system to keep track of dues. But neither of those ideas seemed important in the early mood of the fight. A suggestion about modernization would usually be met with a moralistic rebuttal such as "If they can't get over here once a month to pay their dues, then they deserve to lose their union."
But the bitter lessons of 1984 were general knowledge at the union hall by December. We were able at last to assess just ow totally unprepared our union had been for the companyk's well-prepared attack.
The union leadership appointed Brother Joe Silva to organize a crew of firees that would constitute the Reorganization Committee. Their primary job would be to organize leaders and volunteers throughout the plant to give our union information and bring information back to the union hall. Their success would be measured by increases in the payment of dues.
The Reorganization Committee represented a pivotal change in the local's strategy, and, for that matter, in most union strategies in the nation. We were making a genuine appeal to the membership that included giving them real responsibility for the success of their union.
Before very long a very hard core of workers had developed that did the lion's share of the work. Craig Melton, David Mansfield, and Rick Schoolcraft carried the largest burden. A number of others, even though they carried additional duties, also put in a great deal of time on reorganizing our union. Dick Bradberry, Charley Trinkner, and John Chatham were outstanding among them.
Using the financial secretary's records and listings secured from the company, they created updated records by factory unit as to who was current on their dues and who was not. Additionally, they indicated which months were owed. Volunteers within the plant were signed up, each to handle certain distinct units.
Information was exchanged at weekly meetings that grew quickly in importance and ultimately replace the Solidarity Meetings, which had grown even more sporadic anyway. As the network of volunteers and their effectiveness grew, the payoff was easy to see. The number of paid-up members became a topic of daily discussion. It was hard to know exactly where we were on any given day, but everyone knew that we were getting better and better.
Over the past months, this was the first consistently good news that could be objectively verified. Not only were our members beginning to pay up, but we also were beginning to build up a genuine network of in-plant volunteers wh understood our program and could be responsible for directing others in carrying it out.
All of the volunteers were good, but some of them were super good. The volunteers began to come in with new members signed up as well as with dues money and receipts. Sister Hazel Kolawole, a dynamic young Black woman, had hired in during the struggle. But she quickly took it to heart and distinguished herself as a leader. Young Don Camp was outstanding. Not all of the outstanding volunteers were new people. Brother Johnny Holmes, an NC machinist, brought his unit up from the depths to nearly 100% participation.
Once the network began to be established and began to develop some real authority, the leadership it required sprang up. Brother Jerry Tucker was still directing the overall operation when he could get into town. UAW organizer Polly Connelly played an inspiring role. International Representative Roy Kinney was always available to straighten out the kinks as they came up.
The Reorganizing Committee ran into a minor stumbling block in availability of qualified people to make the system work. There were not enough available Victor who could adapt themselves to office-type work, and there were not enough volunteers coming in from all over the plant to make the system go plant wide. Both problems might have worked themselves out given enough time, but no one could bring themselves to taking extra time. We all knew that we were on an upswing and we wanted to move on it and take advantage.
The decision was made to try to computerize the paperwork. Using President Butler's home computer, a Commodore 64, and some equipment of my own, I started churning out the weekly unit reports by computer. They were not as trusted for accuracy as the handmade accounts, but at least they were fast and we could keep track of receipts for the entire plant.
As to the availability of volunteers, Brother Tucker made a dramatic change in our approach that made it possible to address the entire factory at once, whether volunteers were immediately available or not. He turned the Reorganization Committee back toward the official leadership of the local.
At first, this move seemed discouraging. It was extremely difficult even to determine which units belonged to which leaders. Chairman Meeks eventually worked it out and the main task of the Reorganization Committee within the union hall became to get the weekly unit runs to their proper Committeeman. From then on, it was up to them to find the volunteers or do the legwork themselves or through their network of stewards.
An additional use of the computer that turned out to be valuable was that it was relatively simple to turn out reliable statistics and graphs once the receipt information was typed onto 5 1/4" disks. The leadership could find out how many were paying, what months they were missing, how the different stewards' districts were doing, which units were good, which were poor, or virtually anything else they wanted to know. They called this new information invaluable.
In addition to the new network created by the Reorganization Committee, the union leadership began to experiment with direct mail and telephoning to get more participation by the membership.
It was a shocking sign of our disastrous lack of preparation in our local that we had virtually none of our members' telephone numbers. If we had been forced on strike, therefore losing our ability to communicate within the plant, quick networking among the members would have been virtually impossible! We began collecting accurate telephone numbers and addresses in computerized form.
When one thing begins to go well, it seems like everything does. Local 848 called in Dave Purdue, a master publicist, from nearby Local 276. Purdue put out newsletters and leaflets by the reams, each of them making unassailable arguments to the membership to get behind their union.
Purdue also organized a big fund raiser for the Solidarity Fund on June 15th. A spaghetti dinner raised more money on May 9th. On May 23rd, one year after some of us were fired, we held a beer bust in a parking lot that drew in a number of workers, including a lot of the new hires -- a category that was now realized to be critical to our success.
Sister Loretta Bell helped organize a special party for new hires. The union also organized a special meeting directed primarily at the women in the bargaining unit. Each of these events spread the union's authority among the workers.
As our fortunes went up, those of our opponent were drooping.
The company's former leading hope with the Reagan Administration, Paul Thayer, was sentenced to federal prison for his investment policies and began serving his term. This provided more grist for Dave Purdue's leaflet mill. LTV stockholders met in Dallas. While the Victor's picketed outside, Brother Jerry Tucker and a few other leaders went into the meeting to tell the stockholders what their company was doing in Grand Prairie. By this time, the company's losses in the steel industry had become a major factor. This event and virtually all the others were well covered in the media.
We were "on a roll" and we knew it, but hardly anybody knew what the actual figures were on dues payments with the exception of the top union leadership and the computer operator. Dues payment, the ultimate objective indicator, had risen dramatically and was still rising. But it was nowhere near 100%, and there was no guarantee that a person who paid their dues was certain to be a person who would back the union to the point of carrying out an extended strike.
A sore point and closely guarded secret at that time was the exact percentage of members who were current on their dues. Outside the top leadership, only I knew the figures, and my pledge to secrecy caused friction with many of my friends during that period. Everybody was worried about it, but no one more than me, because the figure was always low -- hardly ever going about 50% of the membership until the last week. Even the final night that dues were collected, the percentage of membership actually current on their dues was still less than 65%.
Word spread quickly that the company and the union were going back to the bargaining table. Union literature called for special meetings, ostensibly for the purpose of gaining even more demands from the membership to place before the company. The effect of this last round of special meetings was to solidarize and extend our support even further.
As word got around t hat matters were coming to a head, recalcitrant union members began to pay up. Some of them did it genuinely to support the union how that the chips were down, others wanted to be paid up so that they would be eligible to draw strike benefits if there were to be a strike. Some were just playing both sides of the fence. Whatever the reasons, thousands of dollars began to pour into the union hall and the statistics on dues collection began a sharp ascent from February through June.
Activist and union leaders who seemed to have lost interest suddenly jumped to the forefront, eager to hear the call to "charge!" Even though it was probably more often an excuse than not, it is probably true that some union members had not been paying their dues for the reason given -- that they wanted to see a strike or nothing at all. Those members began to pay up, too.
Even as the momentum gained, it was also apparent to those attending meetings regularly that the unions was likely to back off on some of its hardest demands. Brother Tucker explained that we would probably not entirely be able to beat the two-tier system but would have to settle for some form of reduced entry rates for new hires, but with no "ceiling" on their raises as with a true two-tier.
Most ominously for the Victors, language in speeches referring to the phrase "made whole" for us was beginning to disappear. Phrases like "get equitable treatment" or even "some equity" for the fired victims began to appear in leadership's talks.
More important than the individual features though, was the general wonderful feeling that we were going to go for a settlement. We were going all the way at last!
A Strike Committee was formed from elements of the union leadership, in-plant volunteers, and the Victors. They began planning picketing assignments and calling up members from the nerw computerized telephone lists. Even the rumors got better. There had always been three rumors for every fact, but now the rumors were optimistic and the facts weren't as bad either.
An incident happened near the end of the struggle that showed the independent character of the Victor's Committee and the firmness of the local leadership.
During Friday, June 29th, Brother Tucker came into the union hall and ordered a leaflet calling for a "special membership meeting to report on the negotiations with the company" for 1 PM the following Sunday. The leaflet ended with "Be prepared to take necessary action in the event the company fails to meet our basic demands." It was signed "The Negotiating Committee."
By this time, we were already operating under a strike call for Saturday night at midnight. What possible purpose could there be in the new leaflet?
Chairman Meeks told those there assembled that the strike call for midnight was still in effect but that the leaflet should also go out.
After Brother Meeks left, the grumbling broke out into open arguments. Why should we pass out a leaflet that can only confuse the membership by indicating that action will become possible only after the Sunday meeting, while telling them at the same time to start the strike on Saturday night?
Brother Joe Silva, one of the most outspoken of the Victors, took the bull by the horns. He called President Butler out of the negotiating room by telephone and asked him bluntly if the wording on the leaflet was correct. Being assured that it was, Silva told President Butler that the Victors would refuse to pass such a leaflet out. The President of the local firmly told Brother Silva that if the Victors refused to pass the leaflet out to let him know so that he could get someone else to do it!
The discussion among us Victors, though heated, was conducted in a democratic way and with great respect for others' opinions, so far had we come in our practice of working together. The argument that finally carried the day was that we were standing entirely too close to the firing line to begin challenging our generals and that, whether the leaflet was any good or not, we were going to have to distribute it. Like well-disciplined soliders, that is what we did.
Now we had both a strike call and a meeting for discussing "necessary action" the following day. But the strike was the main thing. On Saturday, the hall filled up with enthusiastic union people. There was a holiday mood. Lines of people came in to get caught up on dues, tens of thousands of dollars were collected. From the small conference room, Strike Committee members emerged hurriedly every few minutes to talk in hushed and serious tones to someone, then they disappeared again into the conference room. At least one Strike Committee member stayed on the telephone at all times as they lined up their pickets for the first night.
Several assemblies were held. At each of them, the Victors had to perform their demeaning task of standing up for general applause as we had been enduring for the past year. "Perhaps this will be the last time," we muttered among ourselves.
Everyone was getting exhausted, but no one would leave togo home. Midnight was drawing near!
At last the midnight hour and the workers at LTV struck together! Like Mardi Gras revelers, we descended from the overpass over Jefferson Street to picket the front gate at the plant. A handful of men emerged, pushing their tool boxes before them and coming out to join the strikers.
Others who stayed in until 12:18 to finish their shift were considered by many to be scabbing, if only for 18 minutes. I saw and old and dear friend with whom I had shared many things crossing that picket line with a look of wonderment. For the thousandth time, I became amazed at how much there was to learn from these great human events!
Many of the assigned as well as the unassigned picketers spent the entire night picketing the factory and were exhausted at eleven the next morning when the pickets were taken down for a moratorium that was to last through the 1 PM meeting at the University of Texas in Arlington.
Activity at the hall did not cease through the night. I learned later that picket assignments were not actually carried out, even on that first night, and I worried that we would not be able to organize ourselves for an extended strike even in the strictly formal sense of being able to place our people where they were supposed to be.
That morning at the hall, we learned that the "informational" meeting had now turned into a ratification meeting to ratify a new contract! President Butler came in and had breakfast from the strike kitchen. As he ate, explained the new contract to me and to a few others who listened in. I was surprised that this dignified and patient man would take the time to explain to individuals what they were scheduled to find out in a few short hours time in a mass meeting.
Nevertheless, I wasskeptical about the terms of the new contract proposal and I made up my mind not to promote it in any way, but rather to be responsible only for my own vote.
I stuck to that determination when the Victors were asked, one more time, to stand up as their names were called during the meeting. I refused to stand to the general ovation, as I considered it to be a tacit endorsement of the contract.
Jerry Tucker explained the proposed contract: we would have to tolerate reduced entry rates for new hires, COLA would come back into our contract but only during its last months, health benefits would be returned, and all of the Victors would be brought back to their old jobsg with "some equity."
We would be penalized three months pay for our "crime" of supporting our union and fighting to help our brothers and sisters. The responses of the Victors was as varied as those in the general audience. Victor David Finch told the crowd to vote against the proposal and said that he would be ashamed to go back into the plant under such a contract. Sister Hazel Kolawole, who had distinguished as a fighting new hire, spoke against the proposal as did dozens of other new hires. Many of them felt that their interests had been sold out after they had joined and supported the union.
Brother Brooks Farrar, fired even though he had 33 years' experience with the company and a stalwart Victor throughout the fight, asked the membership to vote the proposal down. Others spoke in favor of the proposal.
I rose to the microphone just as President Butler ruled the question session to an end. If I had received a turn, I would have asked for an explanation as to why we had to vote on the ratification right away when we had been assured that we would have at least three days to study a proposal.
As I sat back down, I noticed, to my extreme disappointment, that the aisles were filling up with people leaving the auditorium. A great many of them were going to vote without having heard all the discussion; many seemed to have left without voting at all. Even after all this fight, I thought, there are people who do not understand what a union is all about!
Another thing I noticed was the great strain on the faces of my closest coworkers on the Reorganization Committee. More than any other rank and filer in the union, they knew what the odds were that we could carry out a successful extended strike.
That was what it came down to. Nobody believed that our contract proposal was an outstanding victory in and of itself; nor did we believe that it was the defeat the company had been seeking. It was a victory, but a limited one. Could we do better?
The answer to that eternal question, on everybody's mind, depended on one's evaluation of our ability to organize and carry out an extended strike.
Other than the top leadership itself, no one knew more about our ability than that close-knit group of four of us who had worked night and day with the problem of dues payment. In those closing moments, as it came time to vote, each of us was stumbling toward the ballot boxes in private anguish.
I learned later that the other three had decided in the negative on our ability to carry out an extended strike. I believe that they voted for the contract. So did I.
The 65 Victors returned to their jobs, walking proudly together, on July 5th, 1985. We received back pay (minus three months) but were disappointed to learn that we would have to repay the International Union for money we had borrowed from the strike fund. So the heros of Local 848 were penalized 3 months straight time pay.
Back at work, we did not find a miraculous transformation of our fellow workers into class-conscious union fighters. We found continued confusion and divisions among many of them. After many years of expecting raises and new benefits with each successive contract, some of them could not understand why they had not been "given" big improvements in 1985. Rumors and crazy ideas still abounded. Some of the people in my unit even felt that the people who had been fired, most of us for more than a year, were the beneficiaries of a union doublecross!
The company and its representatives continued to find ways to drag their feet on implementing the new contract. Foremen continued to try intimidation and evasiveness to get around respecting workers' rights. I had to file a grievance to get my back pay correct, after the company shortchanged me. We also had to file a grievance to get them to expunge our records. Incidentally, even though I had been fired for "failure to work overtime," they had put something else into their records!
Aspiring new contenders for union leadership started maneuvering to discredit union officeholders. The new hires became the particular pawns in this sleazy game. Most disappointing to me personally was that many workers did not seem to realize how close they had come to losing their union, what kinds of action had been necessary to save it, and what preparations are necessary to stop the next attack.
The battle for respect that we had fought over the past 15 months had changed forms, but was not over. Each of us, and Local 848 as a whole, is far better equipped to carry out that battle because of the effort we carried through from March, 1984, to July 1895.
I knew a really smart old timer from the CIO who taught me that workers will never make lasting improvements as long as the bosses remain in power. So there's no "happily ever after" in any workers' fight.
But dreamers dream, and I hoped to keep the Victors Committee together as a core of strong union members. The immediate reason that I failed in that was the UAW International, which swooped into our hall and demanded that all the Victors pay back every cent of the strike benefits we had received.
It was completely contrary to what we expected. At the time of the contract ratification, we had all understood that our 3-months penalty in back pay had been more than covered by the weekly survival payments we had already received. To be sure, we had signed papers saying that those payments were loans from the International, but all of us believed union leaders who told us we would never pay that money back.
Also, most of us thought the UAW International was on our side. We knew that we had individually and collectively performed a great service for our union. More than anybody else, we had saved the union at LTV!
Nearly all of us had been unemployed for over a year. Even if we had wanted to immediately pay the International all the money we had received over the past year plus, we couldn't.
Even worse, the guys who came in from the International were downright nasty about it. When I tried to explain that we couldn't pay immediately, one of them looked me right in the eye and called me a "freeloader on the union!"
A freeloader! After one year, one month, one week, and one day of pure misery suffered for my union!
The Victors split three ways:
The immediately casualty of the International's aggressive move was the end of the Victors. We fell apart completely, and the union lost its best activist core.
Union elections came soon after the contract settlement, and some of the outstanding activists ran against one another. The previous office holders ran against all of them, and won. Leadership-wise, no serious changes were made!
There was really good news from the "Reorganizing Committee," which was transformed into the "Organizing Committee" primarily under me. We studied up on methods of internal organizing and applied every idea we could think of. As soon as local leadership would let me, I started publishing the "scab list" in the union newspaper. I started working on the newspaper in 1985 and continued through today. We brought union membership from 70% to 92.5% over the next few years. By then, the union local had implemented an "Orientation Committee" to sign up the new hires, and membership totals eventually climbed into the 98-99% range!
Back in 1985, some of the most active members of LTV joined in an effort to reform the entire International Union under the leadership of Jerry Tucker, but that's another story deserving of at least another pamphlet.
The strength that Local 848 showed in 1985 carried over into the 1988 contract negotiations. They went quickly and Local 848 came out with the best contract in the aerospace industry.
After that, though, the same factors that were dragging the entire American labor movement backward eroded away our strength. By 1992 we were negotiating concessions into our contracts and by 2016, our bragging rights were limited to having survived.
As I write this, LTV Aerospace has been sold 4-5 times and much factory work has been outsourced or otherwise disappeared. Our percentage of membership is still pretty high but the actual number of members is about 1/10 what it was in 1988.
As for my own role, I am now Chairman of the 848 retirees. At least one of the old Victors, Rick Schoolcraft, continues to be active. Local 848's retirees are my source of great personal pride. We love our union and will till the end.
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