[This post is part of a series on relationship-based organizing.]
Despite an increase in buzz and news stories about labor organizing in recent years, actual union membership in the US is continuing its long decline. The most recent statistics show a 10.1% union density in 2022, the lowest on record.
All of the respectable ideas for fixing this problem have been tried and failed. On the fringes of the official labor movement is an idea that doesn’t get much airtime but might have the ingredients of an effective solution: To save the labor movement we have to abandon the Union movement.
I capitalize the U in union deliberately to designate the form of union that has become historically dominant in the US. Such Unions include all of the big-name ones in the AFL-CIO and all of the other prominent unions in the US today. Such Unions have two distinguishing features. First, they contain no-strike clauses that prohibit workers from withholding their labor for the duration of the union contract. Second, they contain management rights clauses that take away union voice and influence from workers over job conditions and that declare management alone has the “right to manage” the workplace. Together, these Union clauses amount to telling workers to shut up and get back to work, something workers now hear as much from their Union reps as from their bosses.
Two worker radicals and writers who posed a different vision of unionism were Stan Weir and Martin Glaberman, authors of, respectively, Singlejack Solidarity (2004) and Punching Out & Other Writings (2002) (out of print and expensive to buy used, but downloadable as a pdf). Both books are collections of the authors’ shorter writings and were published shortly after their authors’ deaths.
Both writers spent decades (1940s – 1960s) working in the auto and transport industries, and both were initially eager participants in the Unions of their day. However, their experiences on the job led them to question with increasing intensity the very foundations of the Union movement. The common response on the left to Union inadequacy was for socialists to go take over the mainstream Unions for themselves, but Weir and Glaberman saw the fruits of these efforts sour as socialist Union leaders repeatedly became part of the capitalist Union machine. Rather than seeing entry into Union leadership or Union organizing staff as the best way to advance worker interests, they came to see staying on the job, building relationships with their coworkers, and taking action on the shop floor as the true source of worker power.
While the world of work they inhabited, with throngs of auto workers laboring shoulder-to-shoulder in auto factories and longshoremen crammed into ship holds, has largely been automated or outsourced overseas, the truths of being a worker under capitalism that Weir and Glaberman explore are no less relevant today. Despite being a public education worker myself, and thus having starkly different working environments in some ways, I can relate almost word-for-word, page-for-page what they say about factory life to what I experience in schools. Many of the episodes of Union incompetence and malfeasance that they narrate mirror what I experience in Unions today.
From their time around unions and in the workplaces, they assembled theories of class struggle and critiques of mainstream Unionism that illuminate the challenges, failures, and potential of the labor movement through to the present.
Weir Gets a Job and a Union
About his early work experiences as a deckhand and getting to know the old radicals who he worked alongside, Weir writes:
On that ship I had finally found a cause and a vehicle for pursuing it. These guys were involved, day to day, in establishing dignity for themselves and thousands of others and policing all the things that they had done to obtain that dignity. I saw the boatswain tell the chief mate on that ship, “Get off the deck while we’re working. Come and see me before 8:00 in the morning and tell me what to do. Come out here after we quit at 5:00 in the evening and find out what we didn’t do right, if you think so, and tell me what’s wrong. But don’t come and stand on this deck while we’re at work. Get off the deck and back on the bridge where you belong.” I was very impressed with that power. He got away with it. I was amazed he could do that. I knew I wanted to be able to do that too. And I did! The time came when I sailed boatswain and I told the mate, “Get off this deck. Don’t stand around us and watch us or else there’s going to be no work going on while you’re here. Hold everything, fellows!”
Many of the old radical deckhands who Weir learned from were former Wobblies, a slang term for members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, an anti-capitalist union that reached its height of influence in the early 20th century. This experience of workers having power on the job, of being able to wrest some degree of control of the workplace away from the bosses through their own direct action, was imprinted on Weir early on and was the form of unionism he used to measure all other unionisms he came across.
In the 1940s, Weir got involved in the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP), the Union for deckhands on the West Coast, and became a paid union staff member organizing ports and ships up and down the seaboard. He relished his experiences building worker solidarity and fighting the bosses, but in this role he also started getting an education in how Unions operated.
Ship crews were traditionally almost exclusively white, and racial tensions became amplified when ship owners started hiring Filipino workers whom they paid less and then used to undercut white worker wages. Weir pushed back against these racist sentiments among white workers but his Union wasn’t committed in the same way. One day he came across another SUP staff organizer who was signing up members and also openly advocating racial segregation in the industry. Weir also heard from some other deckhands that this staffer was a member of the KKK.
Weir phoned his SUP union president, a big-name leftist union president of the day named Harry Lundeberg, to let him know what was going on. Lundeberg responded, “the man’s doing a good job for us over there and we have to overlook some of his faults, you know.” For Lundeberg, what mattered most was signing up members for their dues to sustain the Union financially.
After Weir finished the organizing campaign he was on he quit his union staff job. The SUP was content to carve out a pocket of privileges based on white supremacy that would invariably fracture the multiracial workforce and undercut their leverage. A different set of organizing principles and racial ideas would be required to create an inclusive and unified union that could effectively confront the bosses on the ships and the shipping capitalists in the industry as a whole. However, the racial tribalism of some of the white workers overlapped with the financial self-interest of the dues-harvesting Union leadership, which implicitly dovetailed with the employers’ desire to more easily exploit a racially segregated labor pool.
“I could no longer see my official union as a viable instrument for qualitative social change. I was now a militant but without legitimation from the union.” Weir never again worked as Union staff because he knew it required him to give up his principles in one way or another. Better to organize on your own terms with your coworkers than be subject to Union leaders concerned about dues flow and conserving their personal fiefdoms.
Worker Action on the Shop Floor
In floating between industries over the years, Weir took his shopfloor militancy with him wherever he went. He tells the story of working in a parts factory in the 1950s where the workers went through two pairs of work gloves a week but were expected to purchase the gloves themselves and on their own time. Weir first brought the complaint to the foreman, who told him that the company didn’t provide gloves. Weir then brought the complaint to the Union representative, who gave him the same response. Sensing Weir’s frustration, the Union rep told Weir he could file a formal union grievance if he wanted, which he did and led to the company giving the workers gloves later that week. However, the following week the foreman was again making excuses for why the company couldn’t provide gloves.
Weir discussed this with his coworkers. A few mornings later some coworkers came up to Weir at the start of the shift:
They held out their hands. The gloves on them, like mine, were almost palmless. ‘We’ve had enough. We’re walking out. We shut off the line.’ I looked down the aisle in the direction of the time clock. The rest of our group was about to punch out… Three minutes later we held a meeting. The whole department gang was present.
They decided to reach out to others in the plant about what was going on. Weir found his friend in the next department over who was an old workplace militant from the 30s. A few minutes later the adjacent department shut down too, and as these departments were central to the whole factory, the assembly line across the plant soon halted. They watched the assistant manager walk out of the plant without saying a word to the idle workers.
For the next hour and thirty-nine minutes we were entirely alone. Our isolation ended when the foreman returned for the first time. He carried a carton the size of an apple box… Without looking at us he laid it on the concrete floor in the opening we made for him. He opened it carefully, removed a gross of new gloves bound in bundles of six, placed them in near rows, and gestured for us to help ourselves.
Weir and his coworkers achieved what they wanted but only by breaking the two cardinal rules of mainstream Unionism. First, by withholding their labor at their own discretion, without official approval of the union, and on their own timeline, the workers violated their Union contract’s no-strike clause. By making demands over working conditions that were supposed to be the sole purview of the boss, the workers were violating their contract’s management rights clause. When the strictures of the mainstream Union keep workers down, all they have left to do is to violate those strictures and take matters into their own hands.
An educator friend told me a similar story about worker action at his job. The 20 bilingual paraprofessionals, or paras for short, at his school had for years been told that they had to each give up 12 of their contractually guaranteed paid professional development (PD) hours so that the money could instead be used to pay them to interpret at parent-teacher conferences. One year, the paras talked it over amongst themselves and decided that they deserved both to be paid for interpreting at the conferences and to have their paid PD. Writing up and submitting a union grievance could take months to resolve (and often failed) and conferences were just days away, so they decided to tell their boss they weren’t going to interpret this time unless they got to keep their PD.
The boss told them no and threatened to use volunteer interpreters and pay them with gift cards. The paras escalated in response by telling all of the teachers and parents they knew what admin was planning to do. It also became clear that the boss’s threat was toothless because not enough bilingual volunteers could be found to do the difficult work of interpreting. Seeing no alternative, the boss “found some money” and conceded to the paras’ demand to be both paid to interpret and to have their PD hours. It’s happened that way every year since.
Unions, Bosses, and Automation
The peak of Weir’s conflict with top Union leftists came in 1963. New crane technology and containerization were gradually being introduced on the San Francisco shipping docks where he now worked.
Would technological innovations be made to benefit workers in the form of better working conditions and a shorter work-week at the same rate of pay, or would the employers use the pretext of new technologies to cut union jobs, speed up production, and otherwise erode union power? While the livelihoods of the rank-and-file depended on securing the former, the employers were gunning hard for the latter.
The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), under the leadership of the revered leftist Union president Harry Bridges, was caught in the middle. The shipping company plan created a two-tier employment status, where new employees were hired with fewer union rights, lower-paying work shifts, and less job security. Bridges implemented this scheme in the Union. Many of the new lower-status “B-men,” Weir among them, spoke up against the two-tier model at union meetings but to no avail. A year later, some of the B-men were to be elevated to A-men status on one condition: they had to assent to a union vote that fired 82 of the B-men who Bridges labeled as bad workers. Weir claimed that those singled out for firing were just the same people who had spoken against Bridges and the two-tier contract at union meetings. Long-time A-men were promised better retirement plans if they went along with the vote.
Weir documents what happened next:
Eighty-two San Francisco longshoremen, myself among them, were fired from their jobs on the same day in 1963…. These events constituted the first mass firing of longshoremen represented by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) since that union was founded in the general West Coast maritime strikes of the 1930s. It also marked the first time that the ILWU had ever been party to the discharge of dockworkers.
How did Bridges evolve from one of the militant heroes of the momentous strikes of the 1930s into a willing partner of the shipping companies in the 1960s? While Bridges was a life-long self-proclaimed radical and a closet member of the Communist Party his relationship to the rank-and-file had changed over the years. In the 30s, Bridges had just spent years as a longshoreman himself and in fierce battles with employers he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the rank-and-file.
As labor law began to stabilize employee-employer relations in the decades after the massive labor struggles of the 1930s, Weir argues that “the bureaucratic takeover” of unions was “facilitated by removing union presidents from the workplace to offices outside, making them more accountable to the International [union officials] than to the rank and file.” In the subsequent trial where the fired workers sued both their Union and their employer for wrongful termination, employer-side lawyers made the case that the ILWU had matured in the decades under Bridges’ leadership into a trustworthy organization seen as worthy of collaboration by the shipping companies.
The conflict between Weir and Bridges aptly illustrates many of the changes happening across the labor movement as a whole from the 1930s to the 1960s. Changes in labor law gave employers a stronger hand in clamping down on worker militancy through the legislative banning of sympathy strikes and harsher judicial interpretations of strike restrictions. Changes in union negotiating practices saw the widespread adoption of no-strike and management rights clauses that weakened the organizing position of union officials, thus incentivizing them to find less oppositional methods of dealing with tensions between workers and employers. Changes in technology and the resulting increases in efficiency enabled employers to threaten massive lay-offs as a way to force steep concessions on unions around working conditions and wages.
Facing this new balance of interests and forces, the once radical Bridges turned increasingly towards accommodating employer demands and bolstering factional bases of support among members, such as the A-men, instead of conducting campaigns that united the workforce as a whole for better working conditions and wages. Had Bridges personally become a backsliding miser or were his actions merely a rational response to larger forces bearing down on the labor movement? Perhaps some of both. While Weir documents at length the deeper legal, economic, and political currents that were corroding the power and integrity of mainstream Unions in those years, the straight-faced deceit and aggression with which the late Bridges acted towards the B men make him a most unsympathetic character.
Another feature that came to define the post-1930s labor movement was the increasing preponderance of mass strikes in defiance of top Union officials. In 1971, when the second of Bridges’ automation-accommodating contracts ended, ILWU members walked off the job in 56 West Coast ports and stayed out for 134 days, the longest ever by longshoremen in US history. The strike was not only against the employers but was implicitly a rebuke of Bridges’ leadership in recent decades. The strikers won most of their demands and clawed back some of the workplace protections and union hiring provisions that Bridges had previously surrendered.
Union Betrayal in the Schools
The Union of school paras that I belonged to once had a president who tried to make a similar bargain with the employer to cut union jobs. The district superintendent, after the normal annual round of budget allocations, proposed to cut 40 additional positions in the district to save money. The district habitually claimed deficits as a ruse to justify extra cuts but then had surpluses at the end of the school year. Furthermore, these were exactly the kinds of positions schools need to have smaller class sizes and supportive services for students that are hallmarks of a strong public education. The additional budget cuts were given a thin social justice veneer when school board members claimed that they needed to cut jobs from schools in rich white neighborhoods to pay for more services in schools in poorer neighborhoods of color (looking closely at the job cuts actually revealed that jobs were being cut equally across schools of all demographics).
My Union president had close relationships with some of these school board members and enthusiastically joined the campaign to cut these jobs. His justification for allying with the bosses was that the only way to give paras a raise in their next contract was for the district to have enough money on hand to pay for the higher wages. He frequently went along with district austerity schemes that slashed budgets and programs (despite the promises of board members to the union president, budget cuts never actually resulted in raises for paras). In this instance, thankfully, the rank-and-file members of the union saw through the bullshit and exploded in outrage over the proposal and enough pressure was brought to bear on the school board that the proposal was voted down.
Just like Bridges, my Union president came to believe that the best way to advance their own interests was to go along with the needs of the employer instead of building power among the rank-and-file to directly confront the employer. Both went so far as to favor cutting union jobs based on very spurious employer claims that budgets and new technology required it.
Glaberman Gets a Job and a Union
Turning now to our other grassroots militant, Martin Glaberman went to work in the auto factories in Michigan in the 1940s as part of the Trotskyist Workers Party initiative to build up a member presence in the industry that was so pivotal to the US economy. The approach advocated by the Communist Party and the Trotskyist groups of the day was to win leadership of influential unions in order to advance the agenda of their parties. On his way to executing this plan, Glaberman was elected as a union committeeman after getting seniority with 6 months on the job. The committeeman role is similar to what today we call “business agents,” paid union officials whose job it is to enforce the labor contract between the workers and employers. It’s a lower position within a union, but often a first step for those who want to work their way up the union officialdom ladder.
Advocating a change in top leaders of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Glaberman wrote in 1945 that the union needed a new and “vigorous leadership that will truly represent the rank and file and wage an aggressive fight.” Even though he had reservations, Glaberman supported the self-described socialist Walter Reuther’s bid for UAW president in 1946. Reuther was running against the Communist-aligned leadership that had signed no-strike pledges during the war and had been aggressive in repressing worker action in order to appease the FDR administration. Soon though, on Reuther, the committeeman role, and elected Union positions in mainstream Unions generally, Glaberman began to reverse his positions.
What turned Glaberman against Reuther was the latter’s bargain with employers on a number of issues that disempowered workers and worsened conditions in the plants. One of Reuther’s historical accomplishments was the “Treaty of Detroit” in 1950, the mega-contract that the UAW signed with all of the major automakers. On the one hand, the contract raised wages and improved benefits. On the other hand, the union conceded to the employer total control over working conditions and promised not to go on strike for the duration of the much elongated 5-year contract.
While auto workers cared about pay and seniority, Glaberman held that those weren’t their top priorities: “most fundamental were speed-up and working conditions.” US auto workers became some of the highest paid blue-collar workers in the world, but many didn’t think it was worth the cost as assembly lines were quickened to intolerable levels.
Weir worked in a Ford plant represented by the UAW after WWII:
People would hire in during the morning and quit by noon. Some of them never got far enough down the [assembly] line to report to the foreman when they saw what it was like. So every day you’d start off with almost the full complement of personnel and by noon you were already taking over half another man’s job…. I would come home every night battered by the violence of the work.
It wasn’t just a few isolated radicals who were dissatisfied with this compromise and its continuation in subsequent UAW negotiations. In 1955, Glaberman notes, “more than one hundred thousand workers [including 70% of the General Motors workforce] shut down scores of factories in the hours immediately after Reuther and Bugas [head of Ford industrial relations] posed for the photographers at the [new contract] signing ceremony.” Such strikes are called wildcats and are carried out without official union approval and often in direct opposition to union leadership. Weir himself was working in a GM plant in 1955 and described his situation:
In 1955, our plant struck against the contract the minute its conditions were announced and before a meeting could be called to ratify that agreement. I’ll never forget. I was in the men’s locker room on my break. One of my friends up the line came in on his break; he was livid with rage…. Walter Reuther had sacrificed an opportunity in which the ranks were willing to give their full energies to a fight for working conditions, just to get that improvement in the economic package.
Weir notes how “an even larger percentage ‘wildcatted’ after the signing of the 1958 contract because Reuther again refused to do anything to combat the speedup. For the same reason, the auto workers walked off their jobs again in 1961. The strike closed every GM plant and a number of large Ford plants.”
A few years ago in my Union for school paraprofessionals, Union leaders had backed contract negotiations into a corner and pressured its members to accept a bad contract that canceled our annual step raises for the next two years after 20 years of wages falling against inflation. In response, wildcat sickouts hit 5 schools. Like Reuther, my Union president represented social democratic politics, writing facebook posts praising self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders. Like Reuther, my president could make impassioned speeches about the rights of workers and the injustices committed by the employers. But when sitting at the negotiating table, like Reuther, my Union president found it much easier to appease employer wishes than to stand by and fight with the rank-and-file.
Union Agents as Enforcers
Writing of committeemen elected directly from worker members in 1947, Glaberman initially had high hopes for radicals who filled these roles: “Here are workers who, when they become revolutionists, can provide the most conscious leadership to the workers in the shops and can recruit and build the party with the greatest effect.” But due to his own experience of futility in the committeeman role and watching countless other committeemen fail to enact change, Glaberman soon adopted the opposite opinion and came to see the committeemen as complicit with top leaders like Reuther in giving control over the workplace over to the employer.
A few years later in a pamphlet titled “The Left Wing Committeeman,” Glaberman begins by describing the official features of the role: “The committeemen at Ford don’t work. They’re full time on union business. Each committeeman represents between 200 and 500 workers.” “The different world of the committeeman is the administrative, legal, procedural world of the union contract. He thinks in terms of rights of the workers and proper procedure. All the while he has to placate the worker, keep him working and maintain the peace.” He then draws out what the role becomes in practice:
An ordinary lawyer will try to do the best for his client under the law. That is not the case with the committeeman. He is more a cop than a lawyer. He enforces the law. Workers have often said that what they want to know from the committeeman is what they can do, not what they can’t do. But what they get is a running lecture on what the contract doesn’t allow. The committeeman is the key to enforcing the contract and maintaining discipline in the plants.
70 years later in public education, I see Union staff playing a similar game. When educators were ordered back to schools to teach in person during the covid-19 pandemic before vaccines were available there was a wave of underreported wildcat sickouts across the country (some that were reported include Chicago, Oakland and San Francisco, Houston).
In my district, while many educators desperately opposed the risks that came along with pre-vaccine in-person schooling, Union staff told us that when we were ordered back to work we had to go. The management rights clause in our Union contract said our bosses had this authority over us, and the no-strike clause in our contract said there was little we could do directly to fight it. Members repeatedly raised the idea of striking against the return-to-school orders, but Union officials and lawyers repeatedly lectured us on how that kind of strike was illegal and that we had to do what our bosses told us to do, no matter how dangerous it was. On the eve of the schools reopening, the only avenues of resistance our Union offered was calling and leaving voice messages for our school board members and filing appeals to district HR reps on an individual basis.
The Union Contract as Another Boss
Glaberman develops this theme further by showing that the very structure of Union contracts, upon which the entire Union apparatus rests, facilitates this disconnect between elected leaders and members.
In my para contract, there’s a management rights clause that says that the school board has the authority to tell us what to do. This means that the contract offers virtually no protection against oppressive workplace conditions and that our bosses can tell us to do pretty much anything that isn’t blatantly illegal, much to the frustration of fellow paras who find themselves working with unmanageable caseloads and performing tasks far outside their training and normal job duties.
Rather than the Union contract being a purely good thing protecting the interests of the workers, Glaberman explains how “The contract is a contradictory thing.”
A contract is a compromise. That establishes that, no matter what union gains are recorded, the rights of the company to manage production are also recorded. And in the grievance procedure it takes the power out of the hands of the workers and puts it in the hands of the … committeemen. The union officials become the enforcers of the contract and the union becomes the agency by which the worker is disciplined and tied to the machine.
In his book, Weir writes how labor law initially written in the 1930s and extended by subsequent legislation and court rulings came to enshrine the contract and collective bargaining as “an additional master” over the workers.
The Follies of Pursuing Labor Leadership
After many years observing workers’ bitterness toward their often inept and compromising Unions, Glaberman wrote:
The hostility of American workers is directed not only at particular union leaders but at “the impersonality of the factory assembly lines, the facelessness of modern life, the fear for one’s individuality” which the unions have come to represent.
Despite his earlier calls for a change in UAW leadership, Glaberman came to see that individual Union leaders weren’t the main problem, but rather the entirety of the Union structure lent itself to disempowerment of the rank-and-file. New radical Union presidents wouldn’t fix the problem because the problem was the structure, not just the individuals. Bucking the Trotskyist and Communist strategy of taking over Unions, Glaberman concluded:
The so-called left wing caucuses and unions that oppose the existing trade union leadership do not understand this. Some may be dominated by the Communist Party. Some are not. But they all propose only to patch up the old contracts here and there. Basically they want to substitute themselves for the porkchoppers in power. And that is why they have had such little success.
It’s not just the life-long leftists that get sucked into the bureaucracy, but sincere, militant, and organically grown rank-and-filers as well. Weir strikes a similar chord:
Rank-and-file movements are already having the experience of sending good rank and filers into the bureaucracy and losing them as fast as they send them in, because the institutions aren’t being changed. And if we don’t find a way to avoid rapid bureaucratization, we’ll merely create more cynicism.
My old paraprofessional Union president presented himself as more radical and militant when he ran for Union office and defeated the incumbent before him. In fact, this is what nearly every Union president does when running for election. A close organizer friend of mine won a seat on the para Union executive board but found the experience alienating and suffocating. Like Glaberman, after my friend’s term ended he dropped out of official Union activity almost entirely and opted rather to fight for better job conditions with his coworkers outside of official Union channels from then on.
Weir and Glaberman Point Towards a Different Kind of Union
In critiquing Union contracts as forms of top-down control, Weir and Glaberman urge workers to not be trapped by such arrangements. Glaberman writes, “The [Industrial Workers of the World] did not sign contracts and wobblies never managed to become part of the organized, stable structure of American labor relations.” In contrast to many who see this aspect of the IWW as a weakness, Glaberman sees it as a strength because becoming part of the stable structure of American labor relations means becoming integrated into capitalism. Such is the fate of the Union presidents like Reuther and the Bridges who made much hay of the evils of capitalism but soon became partners to it.
Fundamental for both Weir and Glaberman are the relationships workers have with each other on the job, so the question they try to answer is, “How do we build a form of bottom-up unionism based directly on workplace relationships?”
Weir bases his idea of workplace relationships in what he calls the “informal work group”, which is really a sub-unit of the factory as a whole and is that group of workers who work together directly, such as all the workers in a certain department or on a certain assembly line or on a certain shift. He describes what holds these informal work groups together:
I began to discover the subculture in the factory and that I was working in an informal work group with a life of its own, its own informal leadership, discipline, and activity. A whole new world opened up to me. I began to see that to approach any situation like this with a whole set of preconceived slogans was way off the beam. One first had simply to learn what the subculture was so that one’s actions were understandable to everyone else, and not to violate what had been created. Because if you couldn’t understand the individuals and the groups that they formed, you certainly weren’t going to understand anything else.
Weir describes how he became close with his coworkers at one of the factories he worked in:
I made friends with the people around me the way you normally do. Most of them were Chicanos from my side of town. We soon had a ride group going. We were on swing shift and one night we’d go to the black community where part of our work group lived and have ribs and the next night we’d go up and have tamales, enchiladas, tacos or burritos, and the next night we’d go and have spaghetti—here and there to each one’s house. One guy’s mother’d make a big feed and my wife’d make a big feed and so on. We created our own social life, which you have to do on the swing shift, when you work from four in the afternoon until midnight. And the politics that I injected into that group? I didn’t even have to try. It came in the natural course of life.
This may appear all well and good, but how does it translate into concrete union practices and structures? For Weir:
… if informal work groups are the only form of organization that can’t be taken over by a bureaucracy, then anti-bureaucratic organizational vehicles have to be based in them. The only way I have been able to think of it is to obtain a ratio of stewards or committeemen representation of about 1-to-15 or 1-to-25. That would mean that every steward would be a working steward, working within the vision of, in direct contact with, these informal work groups—something like the way it used to be in Chrysler before 1955 when Reuther allowed that corporation to adopt GM patterns…. And if the representative gets out of line, he or she is on the job and can be disciplined by the threat of chill-treatment, ridicule, and worse. If stewards’ committees at that representation level were to be pyramided into councils on an area level and finally into congresses on a national level, then the people involved in that pyramiding would still come under some kind of disciplinary hold of people on the job.
When basing union structures on actual shop-floor relationships, union leaders are not able to separate their interests and careers from the people they represent. Such leaders are then directly accountable to the needs and social pressures of their coworkers. As he notes, many of the more radical unions from the 1930s initially had structures like these, only to be eroded by centralized Union control and corporate pressure in subsequent decades.
Glaberman comes at the question of alternative union structures from a different angle, looking at what young militants of the 1960s did in the Civil Rights Movement:
When the NAACP proved inadequate to the needs of the civil rights movement … a host of new organizations appeared, some national, some local, some temporary, some permanent, some membership organizations, some loose coalitions and committees: the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott, SNCC, SCLC, CORE, local committees, ad hoc groupings, regional formations, and the like. When particular organizations outlived their usefulness or proved inadequate or could not accommodate themselves to changes in the struggle, they disappeared and were replaced. When the struggle moved from the rural south to the urban north, organizations like the Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers appeared to reach a new constituency and to put forward new tactics.
The ability to take what’s good from old traditions and invent what’s necessary for new conditions has immense creative power. Later in life Glaberman taught labor studies at Wayne State University and became acquainted with students who were working in the local auto plants in Michigan. Glaberman led independent study groups with them on Marx’s Capital, and some of those students went on to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the early 1970s.
The League was built out of a federation of radical black unionists working in Michigan auto plants and carried out agitation and actions against both the big car companies and against their Union, the same UAW that Glaberman and Weir had struggled against years before. Two leaders of the League said in a later interview that they called themselves the “last Wobblies.” Glaberman praised them, “Their strength was that they were not a loyal opposition, committed to obeying contracts and union constitutions. For the most part they did not run for office to replace the bureaucrats. They called strikes in their own name.” The League is an example of mixing the old and new union structures and tactics, working outside of the mainstream Union movement to build worker power on their own terms.
For Glaberman, the fate of Unions under capitalism exhibits a great irony:
American workers today have seen the great industrial unions of the thirties become the one-party states of today…. They have seen full-time status for union steward or committeeman change from freeing the union representative from the pressures of management to freeing him from the pressure of the workers. They have seen the union contract and grievance procedure change from the instruments which recorded the gains of the workers to the instruments under which workers were disciplined. They have, in short, seen the unions turned into their opposite, from representatives of the workers to an independent power that imposes its discipline over the workers in the period of state capitalism.
Even though Weir and Glaberman were briefly in the same Trotskyist party in the 1940s, were writing about many of the same Unions and working in many of the same industries in the same decades, and each developed a political worldview that was astonishingly similar, they lived in different parts of the country, appear to have hardly known of each other, and probably never met.
But Weir and Glaberman’s ideas live on in their writings, meeting the workers of today who face the same kinds of Unions. George Lipsitz wrote the concluding chapter of Weir’s collected writings and recalled:
[Weir] once told me that he went through life imagining himself always being judged by a jury of his Garfield High School peers, working hard to make sure that he would never do anything to dis-identify himself with the people and the community that had nurtured and sustained him.
More than anything else, it’s the relationships workers have with each other that provides the potential for dignity at work and power against the bosses. The workers alone have agency over these relationships and only they can take action together. Lipsitz encapsulated Weir’s union philosophy as “Don’t let people feel that their job is to sit back and admire somebody else.”
After decades as a rank-and-file worker, Glaberman concluded, “Whether the workers become revolutionary or not does not depend on what the union leadership does.” It’s what the workers do themselves, often against their Union leadership, that determines the political potential of the working class.
As we devise new strategies to fight against hostile conditions in today’s economy, we will find old union traditions worth building on not from famous, supposedly radical Union presidents like Bridges and Reuther, but rather from rank-and-file union militants like Weir and Glaberman.