Troublemakers Are Great—But Are They Enough?

David Moberg

Greg Shotwell – a man of small stature and biting wit – is a troublemaker, a thorn in the side of his employer, Delphi Corporation, as it tries to slash wages, benefits and jobs, and degrade working conditions. Through meetings around the upper Midwest where the company’s factories are located and his lively e‑mail commentaries – titled Live Bait & Ammo” – Shotwell has organized a grassroots network of Delphi’s UAW workers into a group called Soldiers of Solidarity” (SOS).

While worker actions in solidarity on the job are essential, much of the battle for workers in the United States must be political.

SOS builds resistance to concessions and demands that General Motors assume responsibility for Delphi – its former subsidiary – and its workers. Shotwell also argues for resistance on the shop floor. That means working to rule (effectively slowing down work) and calling strategic, short strikes to fight Delphi’s use of bankruptcy proceedings to break the union contract.

Yet, as much as his organizing has strengthened the UAW’s hand as it brandishes its overwhelming vote on May 16 to authorize a strike, Shotwell also causes trouble for his union’s leaders by raising questions about their strategy. And he hopes SOS will mean trouble for more than Delphi and GM. 

Our goal in SOS is long term and far broader than one plant or one union,” he recently said. This is not just about Delphi. Delphi is the harbinger. The vulture capitalists want to steal pensions, cut wages, slash benefits and bust unions everywhere. … Delphi is just a doughnut shop on the highway to Armageddon.”

The audience of nearly 1,000 labor activists gathered in early May in Dearborn, Michigan, cheered lustily at his remarks. They were largely fellow troublemakers at their own workplaces, gathered for the biennial conference sponsored by the monthly newsletter, Labor Notes, which recently published a second edition of its definitive how-to guide, A Troublemaker’s Handbook.

Shotwell’s organizing was a bright spot for these advocates of rank-and-file-oriented, democratic unionism, but his situation – Delphi’s assault on working people – indicates just how bleak the environment is today. Face it,” Labor Notes writer Marsha Niemeijer told the opening session, we are getting our butts kicked now.” 

Yet they did have some grassroots victories to savor. Since the conference last met two years ago, largely immigrant workers at Republic Windows in Chicago had thrown out a mobbed-up union and put in its place a militant United Electrical Workers local; reformers had won elections in the Los Angeles teachers union; large numbers of U.S. Labor Against the War supporters turned out for the April 29 protest in New York; and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers forced Taco Bell to pay more to the migrant workers who pick its tomatoes (and are now targeting McDonald’s to do the same).

Tom Leedham, a local union president running against incumbent Teamster president Jim Hoffa, sounded the theme that united most of these militants from dozens of unions: The fight for power on the job is where unionism begins. It’s where it must begin to rebuild the labor movement.” But, he also argued, we have to have democracy in the labor movement, and it starts at the top.” 

Samuel Gompers famously said the labor movement wants more,” going on to explain that he meant more schoolhouses, books, learning, leisure, justice and more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” To that list, most of the labor militants at the conference would add more democracy, more rank-and-file education and involvement, and more solidarity among workers at all levels, including internationally. All of that is critical to making the labor movement stronger, but it is not enough.

Although recent Labor Notes conferences have given increased attention to organizing new members, this movement within the labor movement is still primarily focused on union members doing battle with their employers more effectively. But with labor’s ranks dwindling and fewer non-union workers sensing that they benefit from the fights undertaken by organized labor, clearly more organizing is essential for building the solidarity labor needs. Even if many critics at the conference faulted some of the internal practices of the Services Employees (SEIU), such as establishing giant local unions with hundreds of thousands of members, the labor movement is obviously greatly strengthened by its big and strategic organizing victories, such as the very successful, ongoing campaign to organize California hospital workers. It represents a renewed form of industrial unionism,” argued Glenn Goldstein, lead organizer for the California campaign, that aims to organize the unorganized, build industry standards for workers, develop inter-union solidarity and mobilize community support.

But neither greater numbers nor greater democracy will be enough. Both the mainstream labor movement and the insurgent critics gathered in Michigan often lack a larger vision of what workers and their unions should be fighting to achieve, as well as a discussion of the longer-range strategy needed. While worker actions in solidarity on the job are essential, much of the battle for workers in the United States must be political. Solutions to many key worker issues – from health care to pension security – increasingly can only be won through politics, not collective bargaining. And the usual facile left-wing appeals for general strikes and labor parties don’t amount to a strategy.

It would be easy for some labor officials to get the feeling that they’re the enemy in this gathering of troublemakers. So it was to the credit of both the organizers and leaders of some unions that significant officials from the AFL-CIO and SEIU took part in discussions at the conference. It would be good for both sides if there were even more such exchanges. Quite appropriately, there are profound strategic differences within the embattled labor movement. But there aren’t enough opportunities – and weren’t during labor’s big split last year – to seriously engage those differences.

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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