Rank and file networks: a way to fight concessions - Stan Weir

A piece suggesting rank and file networks to fight workplace closings and to circumvent the official unions. Appeared in Labor Notes 48 (January 27, 1983)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on July 15, 2011

The presentation of Labor Notes "viewpoint" on the concession crisis (October 1982) provides an opportunity for discussion of the many ideas it contains. I would like to focus on the problem of workplace closings and the fifth point listed under its proposals for "Resisting Locally" or the formation of communication networks.

There can be no effective opposition to concessions without a workable strategy against shutdowns. As long as a company can take steps to close one of its workplaces without fear of speedy reprisals from inside the others that it owns, it will get what it wants.

The various top union leaderships feel they must honor the no-strike arbitration clause contracts they have voluntarily negotiated and are afraid to organize multiple "shop-floor" resistances. Instead they fight those who want to resist.

Thus, work forces in plant after office are abandoned to making a lone and too often losing battle in which primary jobs get killed and communities die.

To stop this process, the building of "spread the word" rank and file networks will be elevated from tactic to strategy.

Quietly, it is already beginning to happen. A local union takes an initiative without consulting its International. A worker in one location develops contact with a person in another of the same employer, and then another. Phone trees grow a number at a time.

The networkers are able to trade information. They compare news of the actions and rumor mills of each of their local managements, exchange stories on what the international union has or has not been doing, and tell each other about some of the wins as well as the losses that have recently occurred on the job. They learn that boldness must be laced with caution, but that the service they perform builds strength.

With this as a foundation they have the chance to put out a newsletter, hand to pocket, or right out in the open, depending on the circumstances.

Possibly they can do much more somewhere down the line as it becomes necessary—including the formation of additional networks composed of contacts in workplaces of the same local area, regardless of industry or occupation.

While developments of this kind are still in the formative stages in the United States, the crisis of depression, new technology, and employer offensives in Europe has caused groupings of workers there to go further.

An example is provided in the longshore industry. Last September, I spent time with dockers from eleven European nations at the Sixth Congress of the Dockworkers' International Organization of Solidarity (DIGS), in Aarhus, Denmark. DIOS is interested in far more than one-day showcase demonstrations of solidarity. The organization was formed in 1977 to restrict—by direct action—movement of ships that run away from a port after breaking established work rules.

DIOS is made up of representatives from official national shop stewards' councils, official national unions, port branch or local unions, and rank and file port committees. The Congress stimulated my trip to Spain where I visited the national union of semi-autonomous port locals, formed by the dockers of that country. It is called Coordinadora (Coordinating Committee) and has twelve thousand members, almost half again larger than the ILWU in U.S. West Coast ports. It has no paid or full-time officials. Instead, it has interlocking regional councils of delegates, all of whom must work full-time on the waterfront.

In one of its five regions, the Canary Islands, Coordinadora has grown beyond the docks to include four basic shoreside industries and participates in a grassroots political drive that includes university students and professional workers. Women in large numbers have involved themselves. One was killed in a docker support demonstration and is now a national martyr.

In all its ports, this new union was built on networks that began six years ago. At this point it lives under serious threat from the new government that took office last October. It refuses to switch from job-centered unionism or to affiliate with Spain's largest labor federation, the General Workers' Union (UGT).

None of the delegates or members that I talked to felt they had all the answers, but simply that they have found an improved way to seek solutions to problems. Thus far, they have stopped the employers' attempt to open new container ports at the expense of the older ports, have kept the right to strike over grievances, and have avoided concession fever.