Stan Weir compares wildcat strikes in Poland and San Diego and their basis in the 'informal work group'.
At the time of this writing (August 1980) two large shipyards separated by eight thousand miles have been closed by illegal strikes. The fate of the sit-in at the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin shipyard in Gdansk and of the pre-revolutionary development it has initiated is still undetermined. The National Steel and Shipyard Company of San Diego, California, however, is running again. Thirty-two rank and file strike leaders at the yard, all members of the Ironworkers Local 627, have been fired. Their future awaits lengthy determinations by showcase arbitrators, case by case, victim by victim.
The dissimilarities between these two struggles are many, but there are ways in which the likenesses take on profound importance. Both groups of workers broke with routine conduct to battle openly in defiance of their employers, the law, top government functionaries, and union officials. Both strikes were illegal. The Polish maritime workers in Gdansk ignored direct government edicts, while the San Diego workers had to break the unconditional no-strike and arbitration clauses of their collective bargaining contract.
Both strikes were sparked by harsh disciplinary offensives by employers. The background of events in the Polish strike has been more widely reported, lines are more clearly drawn there, and people more easily named. Anna Walentynowicz was a leader of the 1970 strikes in the Gdansk yard. By the mid-1970s she was part of an alliance between workers in the yard and a group of dissident intellectuals. She was also an outspoken proponent of free trade unions and against those controlled by the Communist Party state. In early August, one month before her retirement she was fired. That act, as she told a television reporter, "was simply the drop that made an already bitter cup run over." Later she was quoted as saying that the real reason for the outbreak was the ". . . lying and cheating the government does." She was rehired after a hearing before a labor court.
According to pickets on duty in front of the NASSCO yard in San Diego, management had made it a habit to begin victimizing militant stewards in the months before the opening of contract negotiations. In late July, a popular steward was fired. The ranks perceived that as an opening shot consistent with management's pattern of intimidation. On August 2, about fifty local leaders and shop stewards demonstrated at the launching ceremony for a new warship against the firing and against poor working conditions. They made it impossible for the Undersecretary of the Navy to make his speech. The company retaliated by firing seventeen of the demonstrators. About half were local union officers. The Ironworkers Local then shut down the yard with the workers in all seven unions (six thousand workers) out in solidarity. Women were prominent in the strike leadership.
Local 627 is said to have a history of taking job actions to obtain quick settlement of grievances. It was already in tension with officers of the international union. The international sent two top officers from Washington, DC, who began a back-to-work movement, undercutting the largest local in their union, and destroying attempts at open solidarity from the ranks of the other unions in the yard. More firings followed and brought the total to thirty-two. Among them were the two top leaders of Local 627, Reynaldo Inchaurregui and Miguel Salas. The fired leaders were put in the position of urging their ranks to go back to work to avoid continued violation of the contract. Their ability to justify their work stoppage as a response to an illegal employer offensive had been undercut by the international. They called for a continuation of the struggle from the inside, the only way that concessions can be forced from neutral arbitrators. In the course of the attack on the local leadership there was talk about the presence of "communists," much in the same way that the Polish strike leaders were accused of being under the influence of "antisocialist" elements.
There are other important parallels between the two shipyard fights and the people who conducted them. Both groups of workers were invisible in the media, until they quit work. Television, press, and radio have never reported what the San Diego workers do on the job when production is going. It is more than likely that the same is true in Gdansk. But most important to this discussion are the similarities in the work cultures of the two workplaces.
In each of the shipyards, the workers developed leaders loyal to them. This does not happen straightaway by official election. The leaders are symbols of a complex process—and are one of its products. The process begins in informal work groups with (i) the socialization necessary to the performance of the job. It then graduates to (2) fun socialization, and then escalates to (3) a socialization of mutual protection. Leaders emerge from these groups by selection of their peers. In turn, from among their number, workplace leaders come forth with sufficient backing to challenge official union bureaucrats. At the Lenin and NASSCO yards, these native organizations took over. Their development would have been impossible without the support of a work culture. During the course of the three already mentioned forms of socialization, the participants (4) analyze areas of their experience, (5) find attitudes in common, (6) make evaluations, and (7) come to agreements. Actions by and personalities among opponents get labeled and nicknamed. All of this acts to legitimize the side that is "us." Finally, it enables defeat of the fear that stands in the way of action. As submission wanes, group cultures and resources are merged. Out of the boldness that makes alliances possible, departmental cultures are forged. The integration of department cultures establishes a workplace culture which takes its place in the broader occupational culture.
In Gdansk and San Diego, we have witnessed strikes but also the existence of cultures which are related despite lack of direct contact. Experiences with similar technologies, conflicts with employers, and common human need reveal what sociologists call the "cultural convergences" or the universals in the two events.
In more than a dozen years of teaching courses for shop stewards in labor education programs I have found only a handful who were familiar with the terms "informal work group" or "work culture." In every case, however, only the briefest introduction to these concepts created immediate recognition and instant insight as to their uses. The first reaction is inevitably joy of discovery and revelation, followed by a brief period of exasperation for not having seen the obvious sooner. "We've been living in these groups all our lives and doing these things and were so close to them and it all came about so naturally we didn't see it. Why is this the first time that this subject matter has been brought to our attention?" The self-criticism never lasts long because all present have found better selfesteem and previously unrecognized sources of strength, all due to the focus on a subject virtually ignored by both unions and radical political organizations.