Every Crisis Is an Opportunity

This year’s Postal Press Association Editors Conference was abuzz with discussion of the Postal Service’s threats to close hundreds of’ stations.  Virtually every editor present knew of one or more stations at risk in her or his own jurisdiction.  The wolf which has loomed at the APWU‘s door for years — plant closings, job losses, disruptive excessing, economic insecurity, to be followed by the wage and benefit cuts and attacks on retirees’ benefits which workers in other industries have experienced — is now huffing and puffing for real.  In my workshop, “Learning From the Past to Conquer the Challenges of Today,” we discussed ways to turn this crisis into an opportunity to revitalize the union, to secure its role not only in the workplace and at the bargaining table but also in the community, and to lead the fight to preserve — if not expand — public service.

Our workshop revolved around three historical moments: (1) the revitalization of unions in the Great Depression era of the 1930s, using the Minneapolis teamsters as an example; (2) the incorporation and weakening of unions in World War II, the late 1940s, and 1950s; and (3) the attack on unions and their members by business’s and government’s turn to economic “neoliberalism” in the 1980s.  We then discussed what we can learn from these historical moments that we can use in this crisis that we face now, so that we can turn it into an opportunity to rebuild the labor movement and redirect society as a whole.

The architects of the Minneapolis teamsters’ struggles picked the right context in which to act.  They could feel the energy and hope of working people who had organized the summer 1932 Bonus Army protest in Washington, had elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt president in November 1932, and had begun a militant unemployed movement in city upon city, demanding an end to mortgage foreclosures and evictions and an expansion of relief.   In February of 1934, at the depths of a Minnesota winter, they realized that coal delivery workers could hold an upper hand over their employer.  Their victory in a three-day strike sent a message to all Minneapolis workers — that with the right strategy and tactics, workers could defeat anti-union employers.

Having decided that the time was right to act, the activists who built Local 574 from one hundred members in February of 1934 to 15,000 by August, paid particular attention to the roles of rank-and-file members, to the union’s relationship with other unions and the community, and to its relationship to the government.  The union asked each rank-and-file member to function as an organizer.  Unionized drivers and helpers refused to allow their trucks to be loaded or unloaded at non-union warehouses, while unionized warehouse workers refused to load or unload non-union trucks.  The union also reached out to other unions, offering them solidarity and receiving support in return.  The Minneapolis teamsters became known for their refusal to cross picket lines, and they helped unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers win their own strikes.  The union also reached out to the community, helping the unemployed organize in order to receive relief, participating in protests against foreclosures and evictions, and supporting farmers in establishing farmers’ markets in the city.  The union also pressed the government, at the local, state, and federal levels, to create jobs, to raise minimum wages, and to protect workers’ rights to organize.  Teamsters Local 574 experienced phenomenal growth not only in numbers but also in power and respect, based on the involvement of their own members, their supportive relationships with other unions and in the wider community, and their demands upon the government.  Their experience typified much of what happened to American unions in the 1930s, as they grew from about two million members to fourteen million.

This kind of organization and culture were eaten away in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, as unions became integrated into a social contract with employers and the government.  The latter, rather than opposing unions outright (since they really couldn’t), developed rules, regulations, and institutions which limited union power.  The dues check-off removed considerable day-to-day contact between stewards and workers.  The great strike wave of 1945-1946 ended by allowing corporations to raise prices despite unions’ initial demands that wage increases not be passed along to consumers.  The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed the two most important expressions of solidarity, the sympathy strike and the secondary boycott.  Unions began to practice “productivity bargaining” in which they granted management authority to control the shopfloor and the introduction of new technologies, as long as workers got raises.  By the merger of the AFL and the CIO in 1955, the labor movement had ceased growing and individual unions were adopting a business model in which a gap grew between officers and staff, on the one hand, and rank-and-file members, on the other.

When corporations and their political allies turned to economic neoliberalism in the late 1970s — globalization, free trade, deregulation, privatization, the cutting of taxes on the rich, the cutting of services to the poor — they launched an attack on unions.  Most unions, unfortunately, had neither the internal strength nor the community support to withstand such an attack.  Beginning with President Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981, employers and the government attacked one union after another.  And one union after another fell.

But now this system itself is in crisis, from Wall Street to Main Street.  In big cities and small towns, we know how serious this crisis is.  Workers, middle-class women and men, people of color and white folks, put their shoulders to the wheel to elect Barack Obama in 2008.  But as the congressional struggles over executive salaries, bank and stock-market regulation, the uses of the stimulus packages, health care reform, and the Employee Free Choice Act reveal, President Obama cannot save us — our jobs, our futures, our unions, our way of life — by himself.  We must learn the lessons of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters — to make every member an organizer, to build support with other unions, to seek support in the community, and to make clear demands together upon the government.  If we want the Postal Service to survive this crisis, if we want our union to survive this crisis, if we want our jobs to survive this crisis, we must turn it into an opportunity to rebuild and revitalize our union.  We must once again make the expressions “organized” labor and labor “movement” ring true.

Peter Rachleff is a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In 1985-86 he served as chairperson of the Twin Cities Support Committee for Local P-9, the Hormel strikers.  In 1993 South End Press published his Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement.   He is currently working with Twin Cities Jewish Community Action on immigrant rights projects.