Keep on truckin' - Mac Brockway (Tim Costello)

Mac Brockway (pseudonym for Tim Costello) analyses the machinations of unions in maintaining order in the workplace, with particular focus on a small dispute in the truck driving industry in New York.

Submitted by klas batalo on August 8, 2010

Faced with the reality of making a living most people tend to establish a certain rhythm to their lives. This often means dividing one's life into compartments; for most people there is working and there is living. On the one hand, the worker is a producer who spends most of his waking hours doing dull monotonous work, who confronts the boss daily, who may engage in strikes, who is often willing to put aside abstract notions like "patriotism" or "the national interest" if they stand in his way. Off the job, on the other hand, he may be a perfectly respectable citizen, possibly a homeowner, who believes many of the myths about the "American Way." Off the job the worker is an atom, who probably does not socialize with the people he works with even if he knows them intimately, whose life revolves around his family and a small circle of friends, especially since the decline of neighborhoods in the big cities. As long as the job delivers enough in wages to maintain a relatively high standard of living, and as long as nothing off the job invades the little niches they have found for themselves, people seem willing to live around the contradictions in their lives and forget the price they must pay for material security.

If masses of people are going to act to change things, something must happen to shake them up on the level of their daily lives forcing them to find new ways to satisfy their basic needs. Radical propaganda is not enough to convince people of the need for change. The combination of an established routine, a fairly high standard of living, and the constant exposure to the mass media is simply too strong to overcome with mere words. It seems to me that barring some kind of major political crisis, an economic crisis remains the only thing which will force people to act to change society. And yet it will not necessarily take a catastrophic crisis to prod people into action since most people's standard of living hangs on the barest thread of credit which can snap at the first sign of unemployment. A few repossessions by banks and finance companies can have a sobering effect.

A crisis tends to unify a class by enabling people within it to see clearly the overriding interest they share with each other. A worker's whole life is disrupted by a depression. Speed-up, loss of over-time, lay-offs, or partial lay-offs result in a sharp drop in the standard of living. A crisis also means further decay of the cities and a decline in the overall quality of life. This unification of the fragmented lives people live can be explosive.

In the past year the country has entered a mild crisis and already we have seen a reaction on the part of many workers. The Post Office strike and the Teamster wildcat are two dramatic examples showing that the workers are quite willing to put aside both the law and the unions to take direct action in their own interests. The concern shown by the Auto companies that Reuther's death may spark "chaos in the plants" indicates that there is a fear in business circles that the wildcat might become a common tool of the workers.

But while the Teamsters' and the Postal workers' strikes are dramatic examples of the rumblings in the working class, many less spectacular things are happening in industries across the country. A case in point is the New York fuel oil industry.

Until recently New York's oil drivers were not known for their militancy, but things have begun to change. While the shift in attitudes has translated itself into action on only one or two occasions, the general consensus of the men is that they have become more militant and that they will no longer be pushed around so easily. This change is worth discussing since it is fairly typical of what is happening in other places.

The 2800 men of Teamster Union Local 553 drive for the numerous independent oil companies in New York. These companies are not attached to any of the national corporations and range in size from a few trucks to a few hundred. Together they deliver about 40% of the oil used in New York City. While there are a great many companies, there is a lot of interaction among the drivers at places like the large fuel terminals where trucks of many companies load. For most of the men the work is seasonal, they are bound by the contract to be available from October 15 to April 15 after which they can find work for the summer without losing their seniority. The amount of time a driver will actually work depends on the company and on his seniority. The average driver works about 20 weeks while the men with most seniority work most of the year.

The job consists of loading the truck and delivering the load. A driver is not required to make a set number of loads or stops if he is delivering house oil or oil used in small buildings. Instead he makes several stops with one load. The companies, often Neanderthal in their relations with the drivers, are continually after the men to work faster and sometimes play the drivers off against each other. ("Why did it take you two hours and him an hour and a half?") Besides the boss's harrassment, the driver faces the everyday difficulties of the job: driving a trailer truck or large straight truck in heavy city traffic and on narrow residential streets in any weather, the anger of motorists if the driver has to block a street to make a delivery, or the freezing temperatures of the waterfront where he has to load his truck. There is also the continual danger of spilling the oil if too much is put into a tank - if a driver has too many spills he can be fired. The men must also work extremely long hours. During the peak of the season a driver does little else but work, often ten or twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week. The pay rate is $35 for an 8 hour day, time and a half for Saturday and double time for Sundays and holidays. In the middle of the season a man can take home $300 a week or better.

The continual company harrassment (examples of which I will describe below) and the generally bad working conditions have been met with the opposition of some of the drivers for years. While the resistance takes several forms, the only type of organized opposition has been the insurgent coalitions, or slates of candidates which run against the local union leadership. These coalitions are not to be confused with rank-and-file caucuses since they are not open organizations but are composed primarily of candidates for the various positions in the local - President, Vice-President, Business Agents, Trustees, etc. During the last election one of the coalitions nearly defeated the incumbent leadership. Since that time it has merged with another group and will probably win in next December's election.

To get its message across, the coalition puts out a monthly newsletter pointing out the failures of the current officials and offering suggestions for reforms. Like insurgent groups in other locals that aim at capturing the union machinery, the coalition never transcends simple trade-unionism nor does it ever advocate direct action. On the contrary, they constantly play down the potential for militance of the rank-and-file. Many of the opposition people have been driving for 10 or 20 years, have faced the day to day humiliation one faces and have seen the majority of the men passively accepting their fate. Predictably some of them have begun to feel a little anger and contempt at the passivity of the other men. What they don't realize is that their union militance is no real alternative and will generally be met with cynicism. The spirit of compromise inherent in trade unionism, the nature of bureaucracy which eventually sets itself apart and against the workers, and the temptation to sell out for money or status makes the unions a fraud. Most workers, I think, believe this even though, in lieu of an alternative they wouldn't give the unions up. As one driver said of the coalition, "I'll vote for them because they might be good for one contract, but I've got no illusions - in two years they'll be under the hat."

When I talk about the passivity of the workers I am talking about passivity about day to day problems. When contract time comes around things are a little different. In December 1968, No. 553 went on strike for ten days when the men overwhelmingly rejected a contract negotiated by the union. The union's reaction was interesting: in spite of the fact that 2/3 of the men had voted against ratification, the local leadership called the strike a wildcat - at least until they realized the depth of the feeling against the proposed contract. After ten days the men won another ten dollars over what had been negotiated. Even then the contract was ratified by a narrow margin.

The opposition coalition's increasing strength is one indication of a new militance on the part of the workers, but there is at least one other kind of resistance to management which is both widespread and common, that is individual acts. Individual resistance to the companies grows out of the particular type of relation the truck driver has with his boss. Unlike the factory worker who confronts the boss with or in front of other workers the driver has a much more personal relation with the boss. For example, if the driver should get on the bad side of a shipper, the person who gives out the work, he may find that he is getting all the bad or difficult jobs. The result is that the man feels he is being picked on and has a personal reaction. He will often slow down and say he was caught in traffic or held up in some other way. He may sabotage the truck by getting a flat tire or pulling a few wires. If he gets into a real fight he may just quit since it is easy for a truck driver to find work. This is especially true if he doesn't have much seniority. Clearly this type of response, personal and not collective, won't get anyone anyplace since it serves to perpetuate the divisions among the workers. Yet sabotage can become a very effective tool if it is collectivized, that is, if the men as a group decide to respond to company provocations with slow-ups and similar acts of sabotage. This collective sabotage can be a positive action, an experiment in the regulation of work by the workers themselves, adjusting the amount of work to the drivers' comfort rather than the company's profits.

The men are more concerned about the conditions of work than wages. In the mornings the men show up 15 or 20 minutes early to talk. Usually the conversation turns to new outrages by the company, or to how they beat the company in some way, or to what should be done to change things and how. Recently the talk has become more militant and while it is difficult to pin-point the exact reasons for it without describing what is happening in the country as a whole, certain things stand out. First, the extensive media coverage of the black and student movements has, to a certain extent, legitimated protest. One often hears, "we're not going to take that, this is 1970, not 1930." To be sure, the more active approach is not automatically a good thing as the recent attack on demonstrating students by New York construction workers recently showed, yet hopefully objective conditions will force it in the right direction. A second factor responsible for the shift in attitudes at this company was the infusion of a number of younger workers with some new ideas who helped to crystallize much of the men's discontent and suggest new ways of dealing with problems. The episode I want to describe shows the nature of those new ideas.

On a Saturday last March one of the drivers was fired for taking too long on his coffee break. He had either been spotted or was followed by one of the company bosses who claimed he had taken an extra ten minutes. (Some companies, including this one, actually hire spies to occasionally put a tail on a driver to make sure he is not stopping anywhere.) There is nothing in the contract about coffee breaks but it is generally assumed in the industry, with the tacit consent of the companies, that the drivers are allowed fifteen minutes. After a discussion, the driver agreed to take a short lunch hour to make up the time. This was in spite of the fact that that the boss was lying, for the driver knew he had not even taken fifteen minutes. The company man said he would let it pass with a warning. Later in the day, however, the boss returned to his office and found out that the man had had a previous run-in with the company some months earlier. Then he went back on his word and ordered the driver fired.

Monday morning there was another firing at the same company. This time a driver was fired for refusing to take out an unsafe vehicle. Throughout the season the man had been given either unsafe vehicles or ones that barely met minimum safety standards. Finally after a week in which he had at least one and sometimes two dangerous breakdowns every day, the driver refused to take out a truck which had leaks in the trailer, a broken window, bad tires, no windshield wipers, and a fuel tank which leaked through the vent (this drips fule under the tractor wheels and causes poor traction). Some defects violated the contract. The defects had been reported numerous times but nothing had been done to repair them. The company told him that he would either have to take the truck out or punch out and go home since there were no other trucks available. The driver refused to do either since he felt he had a right to his day's pay even if the company did not have a decent truck for him. It is in the contract that if the company books a man and does not have either work or a truck available the man must still be paid. Instead, the company fired the man.

The two fired men then went to the Local headquarters on the recommendation of the shop steward. They explained what had happened to the Vice-President who told them in the manner of union officials the world over to "stay calm" - even though the drivers had shown no signs of excitement. He said a meeting would be set up with the Business Agent who covered the area, where there would be a meeting with the company and the men would have their jobs back.

The fired men had other ideas. First they made picket signs and picketed the yard. They explained their cases to the men, first verbally and then with a leaflet they wrote which explained the circumstances of their being fired and concluded with the following:

This harassment must stop - the time to fight is now. The union tells us to keep calm and go to arbitration. But arbitration is a dead-end street. It is a trick used by the Union and management to prevent workers from taking real direct action to settle their grievances. We pay union dues supposedly so we will have some defense against the boss - why should the union be able to get off the hook by passing the buck to an arbitration board? We might as well forget the union and pay our dues directly to the arbitration board. Going to arbitration means going without a pay check for weeks and it means putting your fate into the hands of a board which is not impartial - few workers win in arbitration.
We are asking for action from the Union now - today. If we don't get action we are asking your support to help us get our jobs back and to get the pay we have lost as a result of these firings. We have heard a lot of talk from some of the men - now is the time to put up or shut up. What happened to us today will happen to you tomorrow. An injury to one should be an injury to all. Let's get off our knees and stand up and fight. We have the power to cage the animals that run this company. Without us not a single gallon of oil moves, not a single penny of profit is made. The choice is clear. Think it over carefully. Who wants to live in a world of grovelers?

Picketing and distributing leaflets of this kind is unheard of in the oil industry, yet the other men received them enthusiastically. Men that the coalition militants had said would never help came around offering encouragement and asking what they could do to help. The women working in the office promised to walk out with the men. The fired men said that if the meeting scheduled with the company for the next day, Wednesday, did not come off in their favor, they wanted the men to walk off. In any event, the fired men and their supporters in the company - they felt they could actually count on a little less than half the forty or so men who drive from this particular yard - and even outsiders, would barricade the driveway and stop the trucks. The way it looked now the fired men would have the support of most of the other drivers. This was a big change from a few months earlier during another dispute when the thought of a wildcat was frightening.

The next morning, before the meeting, the drivers again picketed the driveway, walking back and forth slowly, which only let the trucks out one by one. This caused the trucks to back up in a long line under the office window. It was hoped that this would show the company that the men would not cross the picket line unless the picketers wanted them to.

The meeting the next day was really surreal. The participants were: the company man, known as "labor consultant" (what used to be called a goon). He handles the labor difficulties of eleven independent companies, mostly in Brooklyn, and bills himself as a "hatchetman;" the Union Business Agent; the shop steward who firmly supported the men but who was forced to turn the cases over to the Business Agent because they involved firings; and the two drivers. Each driver met separately with the company. Each meeting followed essentially the same script. When one of the drivers explained his position and then said that the company did not care about the men, he was told that he was perfectly correct, the company was interested only in making money and didn't care about "little people who are nothing." What particularly enraged the labor consultant was that the drivers had distributed the leaflet. He claimed that the leaflet was grounds in itself for firing since it advocated ignoring arbitration, and because the contract specifies arbitration as the method of settling disputes the drivers were put outside the sphere of "protective activity." This is why workers can be fired for engaging in wildcats - they are breaking the Union contract. When he was told that the company had broken the contract by assigning a truck that violated the contract because it had broken windows and no windshield wipers he snapped back that he did not care about contracts, the oil had to be moved. All the while the Business Agent sat there trying to calm the drivers down. It was finally agreed that, because the company feared trouble, the drivers would get their jobs back but not their lost pay (three days). The drivers decided to take the compromise settlement because they were not sure whether the men would act under the changed circumstances - and they felt it would be better to back down a little in order to be around to fight later.

The whole episode served a good purpose. First, the men were pushed to the point of walking out - something that had not happened before. Secondly, it clearly showed how bad the union was and that taking a militant stand might be the best way to fight the company. The two drivers and their supporters continued to hammer away at the need for direct action to handle disputes. There is more of a feeling of solidarity at the company and not just among the younger workers who were already sympathetic.

In the Fall, some of the men hope to put out a direct action oriented newspaper to spread the word. One of the men is also planning to run for shop steward when the present steward, who is running for local office on an opposition slate leaves in December. It is hoped that in this manner the actual job of a shop steward can be eliminated (except for the figure-head which is required by the Union structure) and replaced by a committee made up of all the drivers who will meet regularly. This is a good first step in building an independent movement controlled by the drivers to fight for improved conditions without intermediaries. The meetings should serve, also, to eliminate many of the petty squabbles and divisions among the drivers. Most of the men think it is a very good idea. The way such a structure would relate to the Union as a whole remains to be seen. The hard-core anti-Union militants, of which there are only a few, feel that it is impossible to oppose the insurgent coalition and that it is best to merely point out that it will be powerless to do anything to really change things since the District Council or the International would crush it. At worst it will become just like the present leadership. Nevertheless, if people are going to vote, they should vote for the opposition.

It might be thought that the anti-Union militants should have the same attitude towards the shop stewards as they do towards the local leadership. But these two levels of the Union seem to be different. Often the shop steward has little to do with the Union Local; there is little contact and often genuine hostility. The shop steward is not considered by the men to be a Union officer but as one of their own. After all, he's a worker on the job. But the fact remains that the steward functions as a mediator between the workers and the Union structure. He is there and you have to get rid of him.

The men hope to run a shop steward who intends to stop being shop steward, and to function as no more than the moderator of meetings of the drivers. Many of the drivers feel that this action will serve notice on the companies and Union that things should be different, and provide a concrete example for drivers in other yards. It should be noted that, while the events here are of little significance in themselves, confined to one yard, workers throughout the industry are in constant communication and the experience of this yard was known and discussed by workers throughout.

Perhaps this plan to abolish the shop stewardship by capturing it is a trojan horse. The men look upon it as an experiment. In any event, it is a step taken partially in recognition of the limits of the present fight. Many men still accept their fate as pawns between company and Union. They are not willing to break with the Union completely. The abolition of the steward's position will throw things in their laps, forcing them to confront their own problems on the job by relying on direct, collective action, rather than going with gripes to the steward.

The construction of a really independent workers movement will be a long term process. Only when the idea of an independent workers' movement spreads to other workers can the drivers totally ignore the Union and rely upon alternative forms of action in every instance.

Next Fall should be a period of great activity. The elections are coming up and in December, the contract expires and there is little likelihood of preventing a strike. Since there is no doubt that the Union will do all in its power to shorten the dispute, this fight will force the men to rely upon their own strength if they will win anything significant. The experience of the past year will acquire a new meaning in the light of this concrete instance of the need of independent organization and coordination of the drivers. It will offer a real opportunity to generalize and strengthen the movement.

Root & Branch No. 2 (1971), pp. 1-4.