I just finished reading The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland by Toni Gilpin. It’s well-written and has an engaging narrative arc. It focuses on a historically forgotten but influential and militant union and speaks to most of the important themes and challenges of radical unionism in the 20th century. I strongly recommend The Long Deep Grudge to anyone who likes good labor history.
Gilpin tells the story of the century-long struggle, from the 1880s through the 1980s, between International Harvester, the biggest farm equipment manufacturer of its day, and its workers. The peak of the organizing and union strength was from around 1941 to 1952, with workers creating and then belonging to the Farm Equipment Workers Union. Many FE leaders were members of the Communist Party, and the organizing the Communists did in this era is one of the high water marks for both labor organizing and Communist organizing in the US. FE pursued an explicitly radical unionism based on direct action on the shop floor, fights over the speed and conditions of work, racial solidarity against white supremacy, and a rejection of many of the central concepts of the mainstream labor movement.
The more I try to disentangle the nature of labor law and union contracts, the more focused I become on no-strike and management rights clauses that have become nearly universal in mainstream union contracts. The no-strike clause says workers can’t take any action that might disrupt the workplace, especially not strikes, except when the contract expires. The management rights clause says that the boss maintains the right to organize the workplace and tell the worker what to do, and thus the only thing the worker can try to get out of the union is wages and benefits. I think these clauses together, along with how labor law interprets and enforces them, are the central to the weaknesses and failures of the labor movement today.
These clauses have been at the center of the mainstream union movement since its beginning, but in moments of more radical labor upsurge they have been contested and sometimes successfully discarded entirely.
The workers at FE provide a good illustration: In the contract they negotiated in the 1940s they tried hard to omit the no-strike clause entirely, which they didn’t achieve formally but did achieve mostly in practice. “The FE leadership–from top officials down to shop stewards–reserved the right, in the face of ‘company provocation,’ to take the ‘drastic action of interrupting production…” When a boss was being abusive, or the machinery was sped up faster than was safe or tolerable, or workers had their pay cut unfairly based on the employer’s shady piece rate pay system, whole departments or even factories would sometimes walk off the job on spur-of-the-moment strikes. This gave rank-and-file union members the ability to contest management rights on the job and gave them the power to do it in the form of conducting work stoppages when they wanted to, and not force them to wait a few years until the current contract expired before they could impose direct economic costs on the company. Of course, just because workers struck over a grievance didn’t mean they’d necessarily win it, but it gave the workers the power themselves to take action instead of directing that power through a lot of legal, bureaucratic, and largely ineffective channels.
Another aspect of FE in its rise was the decision early on to “place its reliance in the organizing campaign on volunteer organizers from within the plants, rather than on salaried organizers.” Mainstream unions today are top-heavy with paid organizing staff, which I think tends to displace worker agency and encourage worker dependency. While staff can often bolster organizing in the short-term, I think in the long-term there are better ways to build democratic and militant unions. During the height of FE’s struggle to win worker power in the early 1940s, they relied on the workers themselves to do the heavy lifting and they won, giving real meaning to the phrase “you are the union.”
Sadly, FE lost a lot of its power in a disastrous 1952 strike in the face of immense pressure from the government, the company, and mainstream unions who were all determined to undermine FE during the darkest days of McCarthyism. In the next few decades the workers continued their fight and maintained industry-leading contract provisions on a number of issues, but mostly gone were the days when FE workers commanded power and took action frequently on the shop floor. International Harvester, once one of the 5 largest companies in the US, effectively went out of business in 1984.
Good things don’t last forever but can be made again. If we want our unions today to have the ability to push back and build power that lies in the hands of rank-and-file workers and not just in the hands of those who work in the union hall, I think examples like FE have a lot to teach us.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to represent that of the IWW or Industrial Worker as a whole.