Rediscovering Two Labor Intellectuals - Steve Early

Steve Early reviews collections of writings by Martin Glaberman and Stain Weir, while tying their experience and outlook to the emerging split within the AFL-CIO in 2004.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 10, 2011

Singlejack Solidarity. By Stan Weir. (Edited and with an afterward by George Lipsitz. Forward by Norm Diamond.) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. 369 pp. $19.95, paperback.

Punching Out & Other Writings. By Martin Glaberman. (Edited and introduced by Staughton Lynd.)Chicago, Ill: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 2002. 229 pp. $15 paperback.

The "golden anniversary" of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations may be celebrated next summer with a split some are already likening, incorrectly, to the divorce between craft and industrial unionism in 1935. That rift wasn't healed until the rival federations ended up re-marrying, via merger, two decades later.

Led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the four-union New Unity Partnership (NUP) is questioning whether the AFL-CIO, as currently structured, is capable of responding to the challenges facing American labor. Unlike the CIO's breakaway move, NUP's possible exit next year isn't propelled by any 1930s-style mass upsurge of workers. Instead, NUP unions are threatening to leave if a dispute within labor's officialdom--over recruitment strategy and restructuring--is not resolved in their favor, either through election of new AFL-CIO leaders or further over-haul of the federation itself.

According to the NUP, American workers won't be able to go on the offensive again--like they did in the 30's--until their existing unions, numbering about sixty, are consolidated into 10 to 15 much larger entities, with less overlapping jurisdiction. Practicing what they preach (up to a point), two of the five original affiliates of the group--HERE and UNITE--recently merged themselves, although the sectoral synergy of this connection remains unclear.

Meanwhile, NUP's audacity has generated growing media buzz and campus applause. One typical bit of academic boosterism is Hard Work: Remaking The American Labor Movement, (University of California Press, 2004). In this book , sociology professors Kim Voss and Rick Fantasia praise SEIU, HERE, and UNITE for being"among the most dynamic unions in the labor movement." According to the authors, all three have made a successful break with "business unionism"--embracing "social movement unionism" instead, under the guidance of "new militants" in key staff or leadership positions.

Hard Work does reveal, however, that membership mobilization today--even in such "progressive unions"--is often staff-driven, centrally-directed, or lacking in rank-and-file control and initiative. Like too many labor academics, Voss and Fantasia seem little fazed by these shortcomings. Their explanation is that the "political will" for recent "dramatic changes in the labor movement has come from the top, not the rank and file who are usually believed to be the only source of democratic change."

The authors of Singlejack Solidarity and Punching Out spent their entire careers challenging the assumption implicit in Voss and Fantasia's view--namely, that it's possible for radical, democratic change to be engineered from above, rather than emerging from below through shop-floor struggles and "worker self-activity." At a time when official thinking about "union reform" often has an unhealthy technocratic (or even managerial) slant, the rank-and-file perspective of Stan Weir and Marty Glaberman provides a welcome antidote.

Editor George Lipsitz worries nevertheless that readers of Weir's collected writings may have difficulty discerning "what his experiences and observations can tell us today" because "the nature of waged work in our society has changed so dramatically" in the 30 years since the author last toiled as a seaman, teamster, longshoreman, house painter, or auto assembler. Fortunately for us--and those who assembled these volumes after the deaths of their respective authors--both Glaberman and Weir have much to say that's relevant to current debates about racism, working class consciousness, union structure and functioning, relationships between workers and intellectuals, and the role of the left in labor. In addition, they focus on workplace topics frequently neglected now, such as informal work groups, wildcat strikes, and other forms of resistance to factory automation and speed-up.

Glaberman and Weir sharply criticized the labor establishment of their time---which was not so long ago--and job conditions prevalent then (but little improved now in a period of declining union power). The many like-minded essays, articles, and reviews in Singlejack Solidarity and Punching Out are rooted in the authors' socialist politics, experience as industrial workers, and, in Weir's case, membership in a variety of unions. Read together, their collected works constitute a fierce, persuasive polemic against the panacea of the moment--union consolidation through a series of mega-mergers, at the local and national level.

In a workers' movement top-heavy with bureaucracy and deeply enmeshed in business union practices, bigger is not necessarily better, they contend. American labor organizations are already too removed from the day-to-day concerns of their own members and fatally entrapped in legalistic, contract grievance procedures. According to Glaberman and Weir, the latter invariably give management the upper hand--particularly when linked to a no-strike clause--while turning well-intentioned union reps into junior lawyers at best or "cops for the boss" at worst.

"In the 1930s and 1940s," Weir writes (in an essay touting the alternative model of Spain's "Coordinadora" dockers union), "autonomy was taken from locals by the 'international' unions with the claim that this would aid the mobilization of all U.S. locals against a common corporate employer. The result has been the opposite." Too often today, "unionized employers are each free to attack a particular local union without fear that the national leaders will mobilize the other locals or work locations in defense of the attacked."

"I believe," Glaberman asserts (in a 1992 piece entitled, "The Labor Movement Is Not Dead"), "that, if one is not in a middle-class rush to reach the millennium tomorrow, worker resistance--which has never disappeared, even in the worst years--will grow and produce the kind of upsurge which helped create the CIO, the IWW, the Knights of Labor, etc." In the meantime, leftists should be planting the seeds for the next upsurge--not helping to erect what may become new obstacles in its path when the balance of workplace power starts to shift again in labor's favor.

Both authors advocate forms of organization-- like the anarcho-syndicalist Coordinadora or the workers councils of the short-lived 1956 Hungarian revolution-- which they argue are less susceptible to bureaucratization and co-optation. Militant, member-controlled, job-based structures would enable workers to network laterally--nationally and internationally--without interference from union hierarchies bent on dysfunctional domination of local affiliates. According to Glaberman and Weir, the marginality of Marxists within U.S. unions is due, in part, to their own top-down style and "party line" mentality-- a modus operandi antithetical to creative interaction between labor and the left.

As Weir writes in "The Vanguard Party: An Institution Whose Time Has Expired":

"More than half a century has passed since any grouping of American radicals were a source of imaginative ideas and dialogue among indigenous working-class intellectuals.

"With few exceptions, radical political sects are elitist....Their methodology is symptomatic of this fact. They believe that they have something to bring to workers, but not the other way around..."

Weir himself was a genuine working class intellectual-- a rebellious college drop-out from a blue- collar family in East Los Angeles. Glaberman was, in contrast, a "colonizer," an intellectual who left graduate study at Columbia to become a machinist and assembly line worker in Detroit. Their personal and political trajectories were otherwise quite similar--although, as Staughton Lynd has observed, it is "curious and sad that they did not themselves make common cause" after departing (via different routes) from the same Trotskyist "vanguard," the Workers Party (WP).

Weir was recruited into the WP during World War II, while serving, due to his anti-war convictions, in the merchant marine. An off-shoot of the Socialist Workers Party, the WP counted among its leading lights the noted Trinidadian Marxist and Pan-Africanist, C.L. R. James-- a beloved comrade profiled in both Punching Out and Singlejack Solidarity. Many WP activists (including Glaberman) got jobs in the auto industry, where, as Weir reports, they "played a prominent role in the formation of the Rank and File Caucus, which didn't have one prominent official leader in it." Nevertheless, in 1945, this dissident group pressured the UAW into holding a nationwide referendum on whether to continue its war-time no strike pledge. Forty percent of those voting opposed the controversial ban--an expression of sympathy for wildcatting that Glaberman says was even deeper on the shop floor in Detroit. There, a majority of UAW members defied both the government and their own union by walking out in hundreds of local disputes between 1941 and '45-- a subject explored more extensively in Glaberman's 1980 book, Wartime Strikes.

Both Glaberman and Weir remained rank-and-file activists until the 1960s. Glaberman then went back to school, earned a Phd, and taught at Wayne State, where he met and influenced part-time students who worked in auto plants and belonged to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The author of Punching Out also ran a small publishing house, Bewick Editions, to distribute his own work and theoretical writing by C.L.R. James. Meanwhile, Weir made himself a major thorn in the side of ILWU president Harry Bridges, by organizing support for a 17-year lawsuit challenging union complicity in job-cutting containerization deals on the West Coast docks. Fired as a longshoreman in 1963, he re-tooled as a labor educator as well, teaching classes for workers and shop stewards at the University of Illinois. In the mid-1980s, Weir co-founded Singlejack Press in California, a publishing house devoted to "writings about work by the people who do it." Like Glaberman in Detroit, Weir was--according to labor journalist and author Kim Moody--a "mentor to many of us from the student movement of the 1960s" because he "brought a world of experience we could hardly have found elsewhere."

That experience makes for fascinating, if sometimes duplicative, reading in Singlejack Solidarity. Weir's collection ranges widely--and includes analyses of the general strikes in San Francisco in 1934 and Oakland in 1946; the shipboard culture of work and solidarity in the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP); the introduction of automation in longshoring, coal mining, and other industries in the 1950s; and the development of a decade-long "labor revolt" against bad working conditions, unpopular contracts, and undemocratic union practices that began in the mid-1960s. As Weir points out in "Luddism Today," the labor unrest 35 years ago-involved "the largest single wave of absenteeism, tardiness, and minor acts of sabotage ever experienced by American industry." This trend reflected:

"a new radical mood developing across the working class. New values were replacing old ones, a process accelerated as large numbers of young workers entered the labor force. The primary stated goal of the revolts was the improvement of working conditions. The slogan that swelled out of the auto plants in the mid-1960s--"humanize working conditions"--was not so much a call to obtain clean toilets, lunchrooms, and work areas as it was a signal that workers needed a voice in decision making about production in order to survive."

In such commentaries both Weir and Glaberman reject the usual distinctions between "business unionism" and "social unionism" (or, as the latter is known today, "social movement unionism.") Glaberman reminds us that, in the post-war era, "the classic figure of social unionism was Walter Reuther, " his longtime national union president. The essence of UAW's "social contract" in auto was "the trade off of discipline over production for financial and other benefits outside of production." As Punching Out notes, Reuther had:

"plans at the beginning of World War II for the conversion of the automobile industry; plans at the end of the war for converting war plants to the production of housing; demands in the GM strike of 1945-46 for wage increases without price increases, opening the corporations' books; and, later on, such things as pensions, health insurance, COLA, SUB pay, etc."

Nevertheless, while the UAW founder was, for two decades, "paying lip service to social causes" and promoting "heavy involvement in Democratic politics," auto workers faced steady "erosion of rights on the job and democracy within the union." During Reuther's widely-acclaimed reign, the UAW became, according to Glaberman, "a one-party dictatorship and the totally bureaucratized institution that it is today."

Thus, neither Glaberman nor Weir would have welcomed the SEIU-led New Unity Partnership, with its echoes of the UAW's own short-lived Alliance for Labor Action. Both authors would certainly have viewed NUP as the handiwork of Reuther's ideological heirs--union centralizers trying to consolidate power in their own hands for the greater good of dues-paying members who lack the "progressive politics" and "larger vision" of the officialdom. Nobody, living or dead, does a better job puncturing such self-serving rationales for autocratic rule, while also not romanticizing the rank-and-file (among whom Glaberman and Weir spent many years). Weir's death at 80 in 2001 and Glaberman's at 83 later that same year deprived the labor left of two important, if often contrarian, voices. We need more, not less, of their kind of thinking about the centrality of the workplace, the importance of rank-and-file power, and the potential of ordinary people to transform themselves and their organizations through the experience of labor solidarity and struggle.

Steve Early has been active since 1972 as a labor journalist, lawyer, organizer, or union representative. He writes frequently about union issues for daily newspapers, political journals, and the labor press.

Taken from Labor Advocate Online (originally appeared in December, 2004 issue of WorkingUSA)