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Interview with Toni Gilpin on recent strikes and the need for fighting unions

Interview by staff |
November 30, 2021
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Labor historian and activist Toni Gilpin.
Labor historian and activist Toni Gilpin. (Fight Back! News/staff)

Toni Gilpin is a prominent labor historian, author and activist. She wrote the book The Long Deep Grudge which covered the militant history of the Farm Equipment Union whose members later merged into the United Auto Workers, including some the locals that recently struck for five weeks at John Deere, where Gilpin provided support on the picket lines.

Fight Back! was able to speak to Gilpin recently about the John Deere strike, the uptick in recent strikes, union leadership and elections, and what is needed in the American labor movement today. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Fight Back!: What do you think is happening with the current uptick in strikes? And what does this mean for the state of labor in the U.S.?

Toni Gilpin: As a historian and someone who has observed the recent past, I am reluctant to call this a strike wave. We aren’t seeing the numbers of people going on strike that we would call it that. It certainly is oceans away from the strike waves of the 20th century - like the biggest one of all, the 1946 strike wave when we saw 5 million workers went out. So, we’re not seeing remotely anything like that, but we are clearly seeing something going on, which is this restlessness, the beginning of workers registering the discontent that they feel. And you know, that gets wrapped up in the number of people quitting jobs and not coming back to work. It is a major indication that workers are finally beginning to say enough is enough. I’ve been exploited enough. I’ve been mistreated enough. And I want to do something about it.

We need to have more of those people who are quitting jobs or just not returning to work in organized movements before we will really see the progress, we need to see in terms of pushing back against capital and really getting workers more of what they deserve. That’s what we are hoping to see, but these ripples and the activity we are seeing is encouraging and we need to see more of it.

In the national media and national networks like the New York Times and the major media who couldn’t have cared less about labor two years ago are now suddenly running all sorts of stories about the union movement, so we will see. I have made the point before that once the labor movement gets really threatening, all of this favorable media will suddenly turn sour and suddenly all of these media entities that are themselves big businesses will not be too happy about a labor movement that really registers and affects consumers, that affects big businesses, that threatens the courts, and that could affect the printing of the New York Times or whatever, then I think we will start seeing negative press again. But that’s what we actually want. That would prove that labor is actually back. And that can happen in a heartbeat as it has happened in American history before.

Fight Back!: What do you think is holding workers back from doing that in an organized way now?

Gilpin: I think it speaks to many decades of resistance to organized labor and the fact that the labor movement has been thoroughly decimated by the major pushback against it in the post-World War II years and the resistance that was engineered by big business and capital along with their minions in Congress who passed legislation that crippled union’s ability to organize and to progress to strikes that could be effective across industries. And then you had a labor leadership that was undermined by its own rejection of left-wing unionism, of militant unionism, and its embrace of cooperative conduct that seemed to be ok when it delivered the good in the 50s and 60s, but we are seeing the bankruptcy of that ideology now. You have union leaderships like in the UAW that are entirely devoid of any ability to even think about how to conduct themselves as unions in any other fashion than to cooperate with management and to promote contracts that were actually at the expense of workers.

There is a long way to go to overcome all of the obstacles that unions now face, and workers now face if they want to organize, both in the law and in going up against these hugely powerful companies, but the one thing that I can always fall back on is that workers have seen worse before.

In the 1930s when the CIO emerged we were talking about these enormously powerful corporations with no check on them whatsoever in terms of what they might do to crush workers organizing and that didn’t stop at using violence, and murder or at having their own private armies that they used to destroy workers’ movements, and yet, in the 1930s workers prevailed. If that could happen in the 1930s with all of those obstacles, then workers now can find ways to get around the obstacles that seem to be in front of them now.

Fight Back!: What do you think it will take to get there again?

Gilpin: Well, if you want to look at the John Deere strike, here you have this union, UAW, that has made headlines in the past four or five years for corruption. And yet you have the rank and file in the union, these strikers, who remain loyal to their union even if not to the leadership and that’s because they understand how critical a union is and they define the union as themselves, and not the corrupt leadership.

So one of the things we need to propel the labor movement forward, whether it is the coal miners on strike in Alabama, or auto works striking in Moline and in Iowa, to bring that message forward, to talk to unorganized workers about what a union means and how it democratizes the workplace.

Even with how many problems remain in UAW plants, having the union beside you when you are not treated fairly or when your paycheck is short and they are robbing you of what is rightfully yours, a union can address these things. If you are an individual worker alone up against Amazon or Walmart or one of these big healthcare companies you are not going to get very far. No one understands that better than a worker who has been in a union for several decades or even a couple of years. And that is why despite all these problems, these workers who are out on strike are holding up these signs that say UAW. They think of themselves as the union. We need that kind of solidarity and spirit and we need to draw on that resource to foment some new passion for organizing in the rest of the working class.

Fight Back!: You mentioned the corruption and bankruptcy in leadership of many unions, and unions being collaborationist with management. Do you see a role of workers fighting to change leadership as part of the solution?

Gilpin: Well, in the UAW there is an election right now to determine whether union members will be able to directly elect their officers. So that can change the trajectory of that union. We have seen an administrative caucus in the UAW that has hand picked the leaders for decades and that leadership was hardwired to reproduce itself, so not only were they picking leaders who were cozy with bosses, they were perpetuation the idea that no other kind of union is possible. If workers have the ability to directly elect their officials instead of this kind of delegated system that made that difficult, we could see some real changes in the direction of the union.

Then you also have this Teamster election going on right now and it looks like the slate that has been endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union that has been working for so long to change that union, is going to get elected [the Teamsters United OZ Slate has since won the election]. So that makes it look like maybe new things are going to happen. It doesn’t mean that the next day they will have strikes going on across the Teamsters, but it opens the door to the possibility that new ways of thinking and rank and file involvement that can really shake things up in the labor movement and provide all kinds of impetus for organizing in all kinds of new ways. The Teamsters union is obviously one of the biggest unions that we’ve got, so this is really a big deal.

So, it’s not just the strikes. It is also about what is going on in union leadership.

Fight Back!: What would it take for unions like the Teamsters to actually organize at places like Amazon? And will the OZ Slate winning leadership of the Teamsters open the door for this?

Gilpin: We certainly need new visions of organizing but really new aggressiveness from union leaders will promote real engagement, real confrontation with corporate owners than we have seen in a long time now. So new energy and new commitment to really challenging these corporate owners may energize workers too.

I hearken back to what it looked like in 1934 organizing at General Motors and what it looked like to organize in a company with that kind of power. We tend to think now that it would be so much easier to organize when all the workers in one place, but it didn’t look easy back then with all of these factories full of all different workers from different ethnic backgrounds and animosities and gender animosities and workplaces that were protected by hired goons and thugs and surveillance and laws to stop workers. It seemed pretty impossible then too.

We need union members and leadership who see Amazon and Jess Bezos as their enemy just as the organizers in the 30s did. As long as you maintain that kind of class consciousness and see the other side as your antagonist and not as somebody you can get along with and play golf with and cut deals with and retire to the bar afterwards, then we might really have real chance at progress for working people.

Fight Back!: You wrote a book about the history at International Harvester where FE, the Farm Equipment Union, represented the workers. How did a union with such a militant fighting history end up as members of the UAW? Let’s talk a little about that history and how folks at John Deere today ended up rejecting two contract offers and going on strike despite recommendations to accept the contracts by their union (UAW).

Gilpin: Hearing about the strike now and seeing UAW signs, people may think that John Deere workers were always represented by UAW. But, going way back to International Harvester in the Quad Cities, there was this union called FE that was one of the unions that emerged in the 1930s and it was dedicated to organizing workers in the agricultural equipment industry which included John Deere but also the giant of the time which was International Harvester.

The FE set out to organize International Harvester in the 30s. It was a major organizing campaign, and they weren’t just organizing there, they we reorganizing at John Deere and at Caterpillar at the same time. So, they succeeded at Harvester and at John Deere. They had a different orientation to unions like UAW. They were heavily influenced by their ties to the Communist Party at the time and embraced a Marxist framework that led them to see the McCormick family who owned International Harvester as their antagonist and they refused to embrace any cooperative model.

As opposed to the UAW under Walter Ruether that saw a more cooperative framework aimed at increasing productivity that they believed could benefit management and the workers alike. That was not a philosophy that the FE ever embraced. What that meant in terms of actual practice was that the FE believed only in short contracts instead of long agreements, they opposed no-strike clauses, they opposed productivity-based pay, they embraced broad networks of stewards in the plants so that grievances could be handled right in the job sites. The FE believed in immediate action on grievances which resulted in many walkouts across their plants. Hundreds of walkouts. We are looking now at dozens of strikes but at the height of their influence FE we we’re seeing hundreds of walkouts every year at every FE plant. So, that proved to be a pretty effective strategy that preserved the pay raises that people had fought for and keeping workloads reasonable.

But that was not what the UAW endorsed. So the FE as a communist-led union came under fire not just from the federal government but also from the labor establishment that became increasingly conservative. So, the FE was one of those unions that was expelled from the AFL-CIO on charges of communist domination in 1949. And the road forward for the union became increasingly difficult as the cold war really heated up. So the FE leadership ultimately made the decision to merge with the UAW and that is why the workers at these farm equipment plants are now members of UAW.

But even though there are none of those people working now who have memory of that time, there is still a legacy of militant unionism in the Quad Cities that the workers are drawing from. There is still that legacy of militancy in the Quad Cities today. Most workers don’t even know that there used to be this very different philosophy, but I think that through their community and legacy of resistance they are beginning to stir that up again.

Fight Back!: In recent years some large unions have started to say that workers can’t win through action on the shop floor, or through stopping production, and even that we need to move beyond the idea of collective bargaining. What do you think about this?

Gilpin: That has been a model in some unions for a while. To try to influence public opinion, and legislation, rather than relying on workers power to affect change. I believe that workers power derives from the work that they do and that is where they can exercise the most power and have the most influence and their organized might in the workplace is where we need to start.

Also, it is true that now, and the reason we can be encouraged by what is going on is that there has been so much disruption in production and in workplaces, or conversely like at John Deere, to have to work 12-hour shifts because they were deemed essential workers, while watching their CEO clean up as a result, while they were endangering their lives, I think it has forced a lot of people to examine their working lives and recognize that even though they were already engaged in exploitative and often life threatening labor before, they are now just really saying, “I don’t think we should have to put up with this,” and they are also recognizing how much power they have by not being at work actually may have. That’s where we have to start.

We want to have worker action and to recognize that a worker’s power is expressed at the workplace and that workers express their fundamental power by ceasing to work. That’s where you start but that doesn’t mean that you exclude community involvement; that is essential as well. But not as step number one, that’s step number two, or integrated by reaching out to the community. As workers in these places begin to express their power in the workplace as Black and as white workers together, they recognize that they can extend that power out into the community and begin to affect what is wrong there. Their power derives from the work that they do, and if unions lose sight of that then they are losing sight of their principle function and source of power.

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