Does Labor Need Another Wimpy?

Steve Early

A new biog­ra­phy under­scores how rare blue-col­lar icon­o­clasm is today

One of the great mys­ter­ies of Amer­i­can labor four decades ago — for those of us first encoun­ter­ing its then-dom­i­nant cul­ture of blue-col­lar machis­mo — was how any­one known as Wimpy” (or Wimp” for short) could become pres­i­dent of an AFL-CIO union. In the mil­i­tant 1970s, a moniker like that was not a great boon to get­ting elect­ed shop stew­ard in many workplaces.

Patrick Halley’s new autho­rized biog­ra­phy of William Win­pisinger (called Wimpy, of course) shows how the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Machin­ists (IAM) leader tran­scend­ed his anom­alous nick­name dur­ing a col­or­ful 41-year career. By the time Win­pisinger retired in 1989, no one in the top ranks of labor seemed less like J. Welling­ton Wimpy, the cow­ard­ly com­ic strip pal of Pop­eye.

The IAM leader was, instead, a very unusu­al pro­file in polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence, whose exam­ple is worth recall­ing in 2011. His out­spo­ken crit­i­cism of anoth­er dis­ap­point­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent, Jim­my Carter, stands in sharp con­trast to the tab­by-cat role that labor lead­ers seem to be play­ing at the Oba­ma White House today, no mat­ter how much their mem­bers get kicked around on trade deals, health care reform, work­ers’ rights, deficit reduc­tion, or busi­ness-friend­ly appointments.

When Carter let unions down on labor law reform and oth­er leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties in the late 70s, Win­pisinger wasn’t afraid to orga­nize with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to chal­lenge him from the left. To me,” he told an IAM con­fer­ence in 1978, Pres­i­dent Carter is through. He’s a weak, vac­il­lat­ing, and inef­fec­tive President.”

The AFL-CIO was head­ed, at the time, by George Meany, an octo­ge­nar­i­an cold war­rior. As Hal­ley reports, Wimpy was dis­gust­ed by what he viewed as Meany’s capit­u­la­tion to Carter’s weak­ness on labor issues.” He became a leader of the dump Jim­my Carter and dump George Meany forces.” In 1980, he backed an ill-fat­ed pres­i­den­tial pri­ma­ry run against Carter by Ted Kennedy who was, per­ceived by many, as being more lib­er­al and labor-friend­ly. Now, thir­ty-one years lat­er, some Oba­ma sup­port­ers are so dis­il­lu­sioned that a few have even called for a Kennedy or Gene McCarthy-style protest can­di­da­cy against Oba­ma next year.

Before labor’s alien­ation with Carter reached that stage, Wimpy urged the AFL-CIO to build more active alliances with civ­il rights groups, fem­i­nists, reli­gious lead­ers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, and con­sumers. When Meany balked at this approach, the IAM worked with the Cit­i­zens Labor Ener­gy Coali­tion (CLEC) to fight Carter’s pro­posed dereg­u­la­tion of nat­ur­al gas prices. (In 1978 —the year labor law reform went down to defeat in a Sen­ate fil­i­buster after get­ting luke­warm sup­port” from the White House — Carter’s real num­ber one leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty” was an ener­gy pack­age that includ­ed deregulation.)

By 1979, Dan Rather was intro­duc­ing Wimpy to 60 Min­utes view­ers as the only card car­ry­ing rad­i­cal” on the AFL-CIO Exec­u­tive Coun­cil. Where old­er col­leagues shied away from the media spot­light, Wimpy basked in it,” Hal­ley writes. Where more cau­tious labor lead­ers were still cowed by the stig­ma of being called a com­mu­nist’ and went to great lengths to avoid any hint of social­ism, Wimpy proud­ly claimed the social­ist label.”

A card-car­ry­ing labor rad­i­cal who out­ed him­self on nation­al TV today would be quite a tar­get for Glenn Beck and his crowd (who see reds under the bed in SEIU and oth­er unions when, in fact, real left-wingers are pret­ty hard to find there). Union lead­ers with a less con­ser­v­a­tive mem­ber­ship base than Winpisinger’s wouldn’t think of using the S” word in pub­lic now.

In fact, SEIU’s pres­i­dent emer­i­tus,” Andy Stern, even want­ed to aban­don wel­fare state lib­er­al­ism. In his 2006 book, A Coun­try That Works, Stern dis­missed the New Deal, and its accom­pa­ny­ing reg­u­la­to­ry régime, as his­tor­i­cal­ly irrel­e­vant to the chal­lenges fac­ing work­ers in the 21st cen­tu­ry. (Stern, of course, failed to fore­see the Wall Street col­lapse just two years lat­er that quick­ly brought New Deal ideas roar­ing back to life, albeit only briefly and in watered-down form inside the Belt­way.)

The irony of Win­pisinger being a far bold­er cham­pi­on of busi­ness reg­u­la­tion, Pen­ta­gon bud­get cut­ting, nuclear dis­ar­ma­ment, and eco­nom­ic con­ver­sion than almost any male labor leader today, active or retired, becomes appar­ent in Halley’s book. On his way up, Wimpy was very much a prod­uct of the IAM’s insu­lar busi­ness union cul­ture; he actu­al­ly made his bones as an FBI helper dur­ing the McCarthy era.

Winpisinger’s career began inaus­pi­cious­ly in Cleve­land, where he dropped out of high school. After serv­ing in World War II, he became an auto mechan­ic, then an IAM local offi­cer, and Grand Lodge” orga­niz­er and rep. In the ear­ly 1950s, he assist­ed raids on the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (UE) and fin­gered Com­mu­nist infil­tra­tors” in IAM shops. As late as 1976 – when he was serv­ing as nation­al V‑P of the Machin­ists and about to become its pres­i­dent – Wimpy warned about the mot­ley crew of small splin­ter groups” spawned by the New Left that were still try­ing to infil­trate a few union halls” and make a nui­sance of them­selves.”

Despite his lack of for­mal edu­ca­tion, Win­pisinger had what Hal­ley calls a rest­less intel­lec­tu­al tal­ent,” uncom­mon in the U.S. labor move­ment. It enabled him to embrace new ideas and peo­ple, rethink old orga­ni­za­tion­al posi­tions and take the polit­i­cal risks nec­es­sary to push a broad­er social agen­da on behalf of his own mem­bers and oth­er work­ers. Soon, he was defend­ing one promi­nent New Left alum­na, Heather Booth, against vir­u­lent red-bait­ing by Lane Kirk­land, the AFL-CIO appa­ratchik who replaced Meany in 1979.

Kirk­land was try­ing to dis­cred­it the CLEC, the first of many pro­gres­sive for­ma­tions fund­ed by the IAM, includ­ing Jesse Jackson’s Rain­bow Coali­tion. Win­pisinger pushed back hard against AFL-CIO con­ser­vatism, at home and abroad. He flout­ed the AFL-CIO’s attempt to ban U.S. union con­tact with Com­mu­nist-led coun­tries by trav­el­ing to Cuba and the Sovi­et Union to dis­cuss issues relat­ed to trade, labor, and world peace, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly crit­i­ciz­ing KGB treat­ment of Russ­ian dis­si­dents. There’s no rea­son in the world orga­nized labor has to be the biggest hawk in the coun­try,” he told the Cleve­land Plain Deal­er. Lane Kirk­land is worse than George Meany.”

Unlike Kirkland’s inner-cir­cle of right-wing social democ­rats (who backed U.S. inter­ven­tion in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and oth­er Rea­gan Admin­is­tra­tion mis-adven­tures), Winpisinger’s brain trust includ­ed Booth, Bar­bara Shailor (who became a top IAM staffer), Dick Green­wood (his long­time speech­writer and polit­i­cal muse), and activists from Michael Harrington’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) and the Com­mit­tee for a SANE Nuclear Pol­i­cy (SANE)

As an IAM-hired biog­ra­ph­er, Hal­ley veers off into hagiog­ra­phy here and there. (His pre­vi­ous book is called On the Road with Hillary, an account of his nine years spent as an advance man for the for­mer pres­i­den­tial spouse and U.S. Sen­a­tor from New York.) The less val­or­ous episodes in Wimpy’s career, like the 1981 PAT­CO strike, are down­played. The 12,000 air traf­fic con­trollers fired by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan need­ed some real sol­i­dar­i­ty and risk-tak­ing by oth­er unions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in the air­line indus­try. Unlike Kirk­land, Wimpy made his sym­pa­thy for the strik­ers clear: I expect our peo­ple to act like trade union­ists [and] not cross a pick­et line if they con­front one.’”

As for­mer head of the IAM’s air­line divi­sion, this was a union con­stituen­cy that Winpsinger knew well; he had per­son­al­ly nego­ti­at­ed many air­line con­tracts. Yet there was lit­tle seri­ous effort made to engage the 40,000 ramp work­ers, mechan­ics, and main­te­nance peo­ple” cov­ered by them, with­out whom there would be no air­line flights.”

The IAM joined the pilots and flight atten­dants on the side­lines, shift­ing the blame for everyone’s impend­ing defeat onto PAT­CO mem­bers who failed to build pub­lic sup­port for their action” or do the spade work nec­es­sary with their fel­low trade union­ists.” It was a cop-out with last­ing con­se­quences.

One doesn’t have to be a Wimpy-wor­shiper — and there are many quot­ed in the book — to appre­ci­ate that his union pres­i­den­cy was still bet­ter than any­one else’s in the IAM before or since. Wimpy is well worth read­ing at a time when his brand of pro­gres­sive, blue-col­lar icon­o­clasm is pret­ty rare, in the Machin­ists and oth­er unions — although Rose Ann DeMoro of the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion does a pret­ty good job of keep­ing the Wimpy tra­di­tion alive.

Oth­er top-lev­el labor fig­ures, like Rich Trum­ka, no longer speak out about curbs on mil­i­tary spend­ing, nuclear weapons, or America’s ruinous­ly expen­sive for­eign wars, the way Wimpy did in his hey­day. (Trum­ka is now part­ner­ing with the Cham­ber of Com­merce on job-cre­ation,” some­thing it’s hard to imag­ine Wimpy ever doing.) The idea that fac­to­ries should be con­vert­ed to social­ly use­ful – and less envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive – forms of pro­duc­tion has caught on, in new form, as part of the Green Jobs” movement.

But eco­nom­ic con­ver­sion of mil­i­tary to civil­ian pro­duc­tion, as brave­ly advo­cat­ed by Win­pisinger thir­ty years ago, is rarely on the radar screen. As a result, mem­bers of the IAM, UAW, IUE-CWA, and oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ing unions now cling des­per­ate­ly to any remain­ing union­ized employ­ment in plants sad­ly depen­dent on Pen­ta­gon con­tracts like GE’s big air­craft engine fac­to­ry in Lynn, Mass­a­chu­setts.

Once one mil­lion strong, the IAM is now well on its way to becom­ing a union half that size. Its ranks have been dec­i­mat­ed by automa­tion, free trade, over­seas out-sourc­ing, dereg­u­la­tion (in the air­line indus­try) and de-union­iza­tion of man­u­fac­tur­ing gen­er­al­ly. What Win­pisinger called the delu­sion that defense spend­ing cre­ates secure jobs” is lit­tle dis­abused by any high-rank­ing indus­tri­al union­ist today. The cur­rent Machin­ist pres­i­dent, Tom Buf­fen­barg­er – who comes from a GE plant where the UE was oust­ed – nev­er met a mis­sile sys­tem he didn’t like. (Although he has been out­spo­ken enough in his own crit­i­cism of Oba­ma to get him­self exclud­ed from a recent White House meet­ing with oth­er labor lead­ers.)

In con­trast, when Wimpy got an angry let­ter in 1983, from a McDon­nell Dou­glas machin­ist who was crit­i­cal of his mem­ber­ship in SANE, the IAM pres­i­dent polite­ly rebutted the worker’s con­tention that with­out defense work, we would not have jobs for our fam­i­lies.” He sup­plied the rel­e­vant facts and fig­ures about the rel­a­tive job-cre­at­ing impact of dif­fer­ent forms of fed­er­al spend­ing and argued, in his return let­ter, that a peace­time econ­o­my” was far more desir­able than one orga­nized around end­less prepa­ra­tions for war. The con­tin­u­ing build-up of more and more and ever­more imple­ments of mass destruc­tion is sui­ci­dal, and I intend to go on say­ing so,” he pledged.

And, indeed he did until the day he left office, under his own steam, in 1989. He died eight years lat­er, at age 73, leav­ing behind polit­i­cal mem­o­ries that grow fonder the more present day labor lead­ers stray from his path.

Steve Early’s new book is titled The Civ­il Wars in U.S. Labor. This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Huff­in­g­ton Post.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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