Articles from the March 1996 issue of the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
Black bus workers fight "plantation" conditions - Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin
An article by Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin about discrimination in the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
Ralph Williams is a city bus driver for the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) in Chattanooga, Tenn. He has worked for the bus company for almost ten years, and in that time has seen all kinds of racial discrimination, both in hiring and disciplinary practices. He has seen every Black worker who spoke out against company policies harassed and fired. Conditions are so bad that Black workers call CARTA "the plantation" and chafe at being treated as nothing but slaves. In 1993, however, all this began to change when a Black worker - James Jones, who was fired because of his wife's civil right activism - wouldn't take his dismissal lying down and filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This was apparently the first such complaint filed, and it shook up the company and its racially biased management.
Jones then began to encourage other CARTA employees to complain about the many cases of racial discrimination and to take their cases to court.
Ralph Williams was one of those who did so. He had already filed a complaint with a city "Human Rights" agency, and this simple act of filing a grievance earned him the eternal hatred of the CARTA management. They targeted him for harassment and job termination; on one occasion they said to his face that they would fire him "just like James Jones." However this threat did not intimidate Ralph. He began to keep a daily journal of the acts of management harassment against him and send it to EEOC and other agencies as proof of illegal retaliation. But nothing was done to protect him.
In 1994 Ralph filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against CARTA for discrimination and harassment. The company then began to follow him on his routes, scream at him over the two-way radio, and file a series of bogus disciplinary reports which caused him to lose days off and paid hours. They hoped to pressure him to give up and resign, or to pad his record with false reports which would justify his firing. None of that worked, however, and Ralph continued to report for duty each day without fail - and with a smile on his face! Company officials were extremely frustrated because they had never had anyone fight them so hard, and yet remain so cool in the face of their outrageous daily provocations.
Ralph held on for years, and he began to organize on the job. He got other workers to file complaints when they were mistreated, including a number of Black women subjected to sexual pressure from the corrupt "union" president and a company vice president. He enlisted a number of labor-based groups to write complaint letters. And it did stop the severity of the harassment for a while, but then management got desperate to stop this on-the-job unity and really bore down on anyone who stood up. Some people unfortunately folded and went into a shell, and some sold out entirely.
Even though the harassment by the company wore the women down and they dropped their EEOC charges, Ralph never wavered. In 1995 he and a group of Black passengers, organized as the "Chattanooga Bus Riders Union," filed a complaint with the federal Department of Transportation alleging that the bus company was engaged in racial discrimination in its employment and disciplinary practices, routing and overall operations. The complaint asked that all federal grants earmarked for the company be terminated.
After the DOT failed to act, the Bus Riders Union and several CARTA employees filed a lawsuit in federal court charging these same issues, and seeking a court injunction against a proposed fare hike which would hurt poor and elderly riders. This really marked Ralph for harassment by management, and he was given a number of bogus disciplinary reports along with numerous days off without pay, and told that if he did "anything else" against company rules he would be summarily fired.
Even in the face of this threat, Ralph continued to organize. He filed a complaint for unfair labor practices against the company and its lapdog "union," local 1212 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, with the National Labor Relations Board, and filed another lawsuit over the harassment. Seeing that they would never stop him by legal means, someone sympathetic to the company decided to use outright terrorism to shut him up.
In the early morning hours of January 5, an arsonist spread gasoline on his front porch and set his house on fire, literally burning it down to the ground. Fortunately Ralph was not there that night or he might have been killed in his bed. An arson investigator from the fire department told him it was definitely arson. He asked Ralph who it was he had made so mad? Ralph told him "only those clowns I work for." The cops and FBI refused to investigate. In that small town the cops tend to cover up for the dirty work of prominent citizens, killer cops and major corporations - especially when it comes to the rights of Black people.
Of course, Ralph does not know who actually committed the fire, but he knows who had a motive: his employers at CARTA and the company labor union. Ralph has lost everything he owned, but he continues to fight on even in the face of new threats to his life. He wants to install a new union and drive out the corrupt union officials, so a real union would bring an end to these types of injustices against workers. Ralph is very strong, but he should not have to fight alone. Everyone of us who believes in racial justice, and that a worker has a right to organize and protest company misconduct on his job, should join in his fight.
Many workers in Chattanooga are even more frightened now to say anything because of this act of terrorism,. Clearly he needs our help, and we should give it to him. The terrorists cannot be allowed to succeed in silencing this symbol of the best that unionism is all about. If he is crushed the workforce there has no hope at all.
What can you do?
1. Write, fax, or telephone a complaint to CARTA company management to protest this harassment of Ralph Williams and other Black/female workers. Send these complaints to the head of the company and to the union at the same address: Tom Dugan, CEO, CARTA,1716 Wilcox Avenue, Chattanooga TN 37404 Tel: 615/629-1411 fax: 615/698-2749
2. All of Ralph's furniture, food and clothing, along with his word processor and papers, were destroyed in the fire and must be replaced. Send funds to Ralph Williams at: Workers Aid Fund, c/o Atlanta WSA, 673 Wylie St. SE, Atlanta GA 30316-1162. Please send funds in U.S. currency only.
3. Write to Ralph and tell him you stand with him in this fight, send copies of your protest letters to: Ralph Williams, 2506 E. 3rd Street, Chattanooga TN 37404
Let's take a stand against racism and the harassment of workers!
-- Lorenzo Komboa Ervin
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
Ontario general strike wave builds - Len Wallace
An article by Len Wallace about a possible general strike in Ontario. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996).
Despite wind chill temperatures of minus 30 Celsius, some 15,000 workers rallied in the streets of London, Ontario on December 11 last year in the first attempt at a city-wide general strike. The strike was called for by the Ontario Federation of Labour as a weapon against the increasingly reactionary policies of the Progressive Conservative provincial government.
Business in the city of London was brought down to a trickle as protesters marched in two rallies that converged at the city's fairgrounds. City bus services were cancelled as transit workers did not report for duty. Picket lines went up the evening before at a GM diesel plant, Ford plant in Talbotville and CAMI car assembly plant in Ingersoll and kept 9,000 workers off the job. Production was also shut down at other plants including the Canada Post sorting plant. Federal, provincial and municipal government offices functioned only with skeleton crews.
At the Fairground rally workers were encouraged to extend their protests across the province by leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Bob White, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, brought greetings of solidarity from striking workers in France. Politically charged music was provided the entire day by musicians volunteering for the event.
The next city targeted for strike action was Hamilton - steel centre of the province. It is taking place over a two-day period, Feb. 23 - 24, at the same time the Progressive Conservatives are holding their convention.
Debate has been heavy within the Ontario Federation of Labour leadership over the strikes. The Steelworkers are reluctant to place so much emphasis on industrial action and indicated that they would not shut down Hamilton's steel mills. They have continued to push the legislative road to organized labour's predicament through support for the New Democratic Party.
The Canadian Auto Workers and some public service unions have argued, however, that reliance on the NDP is a dead end at this crucial stage and that nothing is left but opposition at the job level. A compromise was finally reached with the USWA agreeing to join the strike and giving prominent New Democrats a major role.
Meanwhile, local labour assemblies are taking matters into their own hands as the government begins to ram through Bill 26, the newest piece of legislation designated as "the bully bill."
This new bill forces massive changes to 44 existing provincial statutes. Under the guise of supposedly paring down big government, the bill will transfer and extend significant power to municipalities, allowing them the right to hire and fire teachers, cut funding to conservation authorities and social agencies, contract our firefighting to private enterprise, impose user fees, all with little or no public input.
While former governments at least made a pretense of being democratic in allowing public input, this bill will be rammed through the legislature by a majority Conservative caucus after only two weeks of public discussion. Local labour councils and community organizations have been staging protests at all cities where hearings are held. As part of that protest, 40,000 teachers from across the province staged a demonstration at the doors of the Ontario legislature in Toronto to voice their opposition to the bill.
More and more sectors of society actively oppose the government's actions. The course of events is changing the political landscape of the province. Public sector workers have been forced into an activist role. (This month, thousands of Ontario Public Service Employees Union members may be forced into a strike.) Teachers have entered the fray. Medical professions have spoken out and even small business organizations are nervous and shake with growing threats of radical strike actions from labour's ranks.
While the New Democrats desperately paint themselves as the "see, you shoulda voted for us even though we screwed you" good guys and Liberals sniff at the edges of the workers movement trying to pass themselves off as the friends of labour, the public is disillusioned with politicians of every stripe.
The strike in Hamilton will be different from the one in London, revealing very different approaches to where the movement should proceed. In the process, however, more workers have become radicalized and are calling for strike action in more cities and across the entire province.
-- Len Wallace, X304149
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
Shut them down - Jon Bekken
A collection of short comments on then current events by Jon Bekken. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
As Gannett and Knight-Ridder's (owners of the Detroit News and Free Press ) strike-related losses approach $150 million, the giant media conglomerates show no sign of backing down. "We're going to hire a whole new work force and go on without unions," Detroit News editor Robert Giles said, "or they can surrender unconditionally and salvage what they can."
The publishers appear to be winning. Yes, circulation is way down; advertising is down; and the union-published Detroit Sunday Journal is being well-received. But in any starve-out strike, Gannett and Knight-Ridder start with a huge advantage - they can drop a couple hundred of million bucks on union-busting and cover the losses from their other newspapers, magazines, billboards, TV stations, etc. As long as they can keep their scab papers on the streets - and in the face of anti-labor injunctions, the newspaper unions have essentially given up on stopping the scab papers - they will eventually come out on top.
So something needs to be done. There is growing support for a national labor march on Detroit to support the striking newspaper workers. But we don't need more symbolic marches, replete with politicians mouthing pious platitudes about the "little people" (leprechauns, grab your wallets).
We've done plenty of marching in recent years, and all it's given us is sore feet. We need direct action at the point of production to hit the bosses where it hurts - in their pocketbooks.
There are in the neighborhood of a half-million union members in the Detroit vicinity - more than enough to effectively picket the printing, editorial and distribution centers and shut the scab papers down. It can be done - and sustained - as long as necessary, if the unions (and members) are determined to turn back the union-busters.
A few weeks back an appeal ran in the New York Times pleading with other workers to honor building workers' picket lines. "This is your strike too," the full-page ad explained. "If you cross a picket line, you hurt the members of Local 32B-32J and you hurt the members of your union. You hurt yourself too...
"The old truism `an injury to one is an injury to all' was born in times of turmoil and every union is facing times of turmoil again... The reason unions became successful in the early years of this century was because working people banded together. The spirit of unionism was alive in every worker's heart... It didn't matter what union was involved, when a picket line went up, no union member crossed." (emphasis in original)
One could quarrel with their history (the AFL was built on union-scabbing), but the basic premise is sound - Union scabbing must stop!
The labor movement is weak today. But we aren't so weak that we have to stab our fellow workers in the back in a desperate scramble for the occasional crumb the bosses dangle in front of our noses. If workers once again begin taking picket lines seriously - refusing to do scab work, refusing to haul scab cargo, refusing to service struck employers or struck job sites, refusing to do anything whatever to aid the bosses while they are trying to crush our fellow workers - we are strong enough to make it stick.
Some unions did honor the 32B-32J lines, and the bosses had to scale back their give-back demands. But it's time to stop battling the bosses with both hands tied behind our backs, blindfolded, playing by their rules...
Mickey Mouse Beats Workers
While the U.S. and other governments turn a blind eye to labor repression in China, the State Department is threatening substantial penalties if the Chinese authorities don't crack down on pirated movies, CDs and computer software. It seems Mickey Mouse has much more pull in the corridors of Washington than do workers...
Dollars for Democrats
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says the federation will spend $35 million in the 1996 election campaign in behalf of 75 targetted candidates. The AFL is meeting this month to formally endorse President Clinton's re-election.
Sweeney, a member of Democratic Socialists of America, has been wandering the country offering olive branches to the employing class. He might do better to borrow a page from our French fellow workers, who apparently know what to do when they find themselves under attack...
The New York Times (2/10/96) criticizes Guinea's government for its incompetence, "unable to achieve such elementary results as paying salaries on time or keeping the streets safe from policemen..." It's nice to see our paper of record finally admit that people need protection from the police, rather than the other way around.
As we go to press, another rail accident, this time in New Jersey, has killed two engineers - one of whom had been working for 14 hours - and a passenge. We've had a string of such "accidents" in recent months as rail companies have slashed train crews and increased working hours in an all-out war against the dreaded feather-bedding.
Not that the bosses are against feather beds, mind you (one need only visit the management suites to see that they have no objection to a little luxury). But the thought of paying a few "extra" workers to keep an eye out for safety gives them indigestion...
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)
From the desk of... - Fred Chase
A column by Fred Chase comparing elements of the 1960s civil rights movement with the Detroit newspaper strike. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996).
"I ain't scared of your jails cuz I want my freedom." In honor of Black History Month there was a fine retrospective on the radio yesterday about the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Of course it mentioned the murder of three civil rights workers there, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. They were about my age, young men at the time. I was just coming into political consciousness. They already had theirs. I had just engaged in my first demonstration in Ypsilanti at Eastern Michigan University, a support march for the freedom fighters in the south. I knew I wanted to be involved in bringing about change. Those murders made me very aware of the potential price of freedom.
"I ain't scared of dying 'cuz I want my freedom!" the voice on the radio sings defiantly, but with a detectable tremor that tells me the singer was indeed scared of dying but wasn't going to let that deter him from his goal. And the former SNCC activists on the program told of how every once in a while they would be very scared of dying, but would suppress it by plunging back into their organizing. My personal heroes scare easily, but they don't deter easily.
Someone sent a postcard to General Headquarters recently. It has a picture of Mother Jones on it. She is quoted saying: "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." Well, I'm not a praying man; but I do honor the dead while I'm fighting for the living. And those three names are branded into my consciousness. I can only imagine how many others were radicalized by their sacrifice.
They were part of a seminal movement. Their courage and that of thousands of others like them brought the beginning of the end of segregation. Of course it didn't end racism. That's a struggle which will no doubt always be with us. But they're part of a long line of people from the beginning of human time who have risked all for principles like freedom and justice. Their example inspired others to risk in other movements for the same principles. They were no doubt inspired by the risks of those who came before them.
I'm getting the feeling that a seminal movement today may be the struggle for economic justice.
And one of the key battlegrounds may be in Detroit where the strike against Gannett and Knight-Ridder drags into its 7th month. Detroit remains a relative stronghold in the U.S. labor movement. Close to a quarter of a million people in Southeast Michigan are Union. I have to wonder if that isn't the reason Detroit was chosen for this particular battle. If Gannett and Co. can bust the six striking unions at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, in the back yard of the UAW, in an area of Teamster strength, it will promote the illusion that they are invincible. And that will send a message of encouragement to other corporate giants that, if they haven't done so already, now's the time for the final drive to crush the unions.
Each of the Detroit papers has reported more than $50 million in losses and expectations of losing tens of millions more because of the strike. Yet a spokesperson from Gannett shrugs. The corporate giant which publishes U.S.A. Today can lose 50 million in Detroit and still report corporate profits of 70 million for the year.
Former Governor George Wallace of Alabama will be remembered for posturing in a schoolhouse door to block racial integration, his infamous comment: "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" George was proven wrong because of the courage of people like Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. If people like them decide it's time to take a stand in today's struggle, the suits at Gannett and Knight-Ridder will be proven wrong as well.
There's talk of efforts to get the AFL-CIO high mucky-mucks to come back to Detroit to lead a march in the spring. And there's talk of using that march as a springboard for massive civil disobedience against the papers. There's even talk of promoting a general strike in Detroit. That kind of talk was starting to be heard last September when thousands of strikers and their supporters stood up to Sterling Heights cops and Vance Security goons at the Detroit News plant. It faded with the imposition of an injunction against mass picketing which the leaders of the striking unions decided to honor.
Now the NLRB has ruled the unions have engaged in an unfair labor practice by harrassing scabs. The Gannett spokesman says he hopes this will encourage the unions to change their tactics. It's certainly time to change tactics. The ones determined to be acceptable by the powers that be are bound to lose the strike for the workers.
So maybe it's time for civil disobedience and general strikes. And maybe talk of these or other actions shouldn't be limited to Detroit. Gannett is everywhere in the U.S. If it succeeds in busting the Detroit strike, it will use its deep pockets to fight the unions at its papers across the country. Of course we all know that the general strike is a romantic dream, an impractical theory. That's what I was taught in school. Apparently French workers aren't as well schooled as those of us in the United States.
The "leaders" of the striking Detroit newspaper unions don't seem likely to take any action which might put them in jail or put their treasuries in jeopardy. If it is to happen, it will come from the rank-and-file workers who have had enough, who are ready to say "I ain't scared of your jails, goons, injunctions cuz I want my freedom, want my freedom, want my freedom NOW!"
See you on the picket line.
Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker #1589 (March 1996)