The Two Things Unions Traded Away That Handed Workers to Trump

Industrial workers know their unions can’t stop plant closures.

Staughton Lynd

Joe Marshall, Jr. and Joe Marshall Sr., amid the ruins of the demolished Ohio Works, U.S. Steel in Youngstown, 1983. Closed by U.S. Steel in 1979, over 50,000 jobs disappeared from Youngstown in a 5-year span. The Washington Post

This is a response to the cover story of In These Times’ January issue, Are Trump Voters a Lost Cause?

Thank you for printing Are Trump Voters a Lost Cause?” and thanks to Mindy Isser for writing it. I offer a different perspective. It is intended to continue a discussion, not to end one. 

Youngstown, Ohio used to be one of the major steelmaking communities in the United States. When Alice and I moved to the area in 1976, many here remembered the bloody confrontations of the 1937 Little Steel Strike. Yet in 2016 Clinton narrowly carried Mahoning County (where Youngstown is located) and in the 2020 presidential election, for the first time in decades, it went red.

Why have so many unionized workers supported Trump? An answer to this question requires looking all the way back to the early steel contracts made standard by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Two concessions made then render today’s unions powerless to stop factory closures.

The first is the no-strike clause. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act states that (private-sector) workers have a protected right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. It is union contracts, negotiated by unions and employers, that forbid strikes and other direct action during the life of the contract. This language, which goes to back to the standard contracts of CIO unions, deprives workers of what Isser calls their power on the job.” As the late Marty Glaberman used to say, the union then becomes a cop for the boss, standing at the factory door and telling wildcat strikers to go back to work.

The second is the management prerogative clause. The first contract between the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (a branch of the CIO) and U.S. Steel in early 1937 gave the company the exclusive authority to determine where, when and how production should occur. In 1980 — as lead lawyer for a coalition of six local unions, a number of religious bodies, the Republican congressman, and several dozen individual steelworkers, I tried to use the law to stop U.S. Steel’s abandonment of its Youngstown facilities, I introduced as an exhibit a glossy booklet produced by U.S. Steel’s own manager for the Youngstown area. The booklet advocated tearing down the open-hearth furnaces being used to make steel in Youngstown and building electric furnaces up river. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals characterized our lawsuit sympathetically as a cry for help from the Mahoning Valley” but could find no legal authority to support our plea. Ironically, just when racial minorities and women were entering the skilled trades in steel, mills were closed. 

Education by organizers, while it may result in greater awareness, is not a solution to the problem of factory flight. There was and is an alternative. It might be termed collective direct action at the local level.”

John Sargent, first president of the 18,000-member SWOC local at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Ind., believed that the Little Steel strike of 1937, which most labor historians consider a crushing defeat, was a victory of great proportions.” The union did not win a contract at Inland Steel. What workers won was an agreement through the Indiana governor’s office that the company would recognize and bargain with the Steelworkers Union, and the company union and any other organization that wanted to represent the people in the steel industry.” As John said in 1980, looking back,

Without a contract, without any agreement with the company, without any regulations concerning hours of work, conditions of work, or wages, a tremendous surge took place. We talk of a rank-and-file movement: the beginning of union organization was the best kind of rank-and-file movement you could think of. John L. Lewis sent in a few organizers, but there were no organizers at Inland Steel. … The union organizers were essentially workers in the mill who were so disgusted with their conditions and so ready for a change that they took the union into their own hands. 

John continued,

We secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages that we do not have today [1980]. For example, as a result of the enthusiasm of the people in the mill you had a series of strikes, wildcats, shut-downs, slow-downs, anything working people could think of to secure for themselves what they decided they had to have. If their wages were low there was no contract to prohibit them from striking, and they struck for better wages. If their conditions were bad, if they didn’t like what was going on, if they were being abused, the people in the mill themselves — without a contract or any agreement with the company involved — would shut down a department or even a group of departments to secure for themselves the things they found necessary. 

Only at Inland Steel, where the strike did not achieve its objective of a signed contract, did the workers return to a reopened steel mill amid cries of victory from thousands of jubilant workers.” 

The one thing that is crystal clear is that the organizer” who seeks to nurture a movement capable of challenging company investment plans, must be prepared to stay in one place for a long time. As former Local 1462 President Ed Mann said, 

You got to put down roots if you want to change anything. You can’t be like a damn butterfly, flitting around all over. … Who knows what is going to make the workers say, This is enough!” But the point is, somebody has to be there when they say, This is enough!”

So why Trump? A final thought. The task of trade unions is to defend the wages and working conditions of their members, and, if possible, to improve them. People on the Left may wish that trade unions also advocated socialism. But that is not why trade unions were created. Another Local 1462 union activist, John Barbero, insisted, Youngstown sure died hard.” But our improvised resistance was unsuccessful, as was similar resistance to U.S. Steel at its Homestead Works, near Pittsburgh.

The form of organization better suited to advocate and work toward social change in the larger society is not a union in a particular kind of work or a coalition of national unions, but a coalition of local labor bodies, which is what Russians originally meant by the word soviet.”

The Russian Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg wrote, was the first historical experiment on the model of the class strike.” She stresses the spontaneity of the horizontal spread of the 1905 general strike and the way in which the issue bringing people together to take common action might be one thing, such as the length of the workday, in one place, and something quite different, such as the rate of pay, in another. She also emphasizes the importance of direct action in these mini-revolts, so that workers concerned to shorten their hours of work might simply walk off the job together when they had worked the number of hours they were demanding. (The IWW timber workers in the Northwest did precisely the same thing at approximately the same time.) Thus Luxemburg differed from those who, in the manner of a board of directors,” attempted to schedule a general strike for a specific day on the calendar.

In 1982, when workers were on strike at Trumbull Memorial Hospital in nearby Warren, Ohio, we participated in a huge march supported by many local unionists in the Mahoning Valley, including a large number of United Autoworkers members from GM Lordstown. As we marched, we chanted: Warren is a union town. We won’t let you tear it down.” The promise implicit in this action can only come to fruition when no-strike and management-prerogative language is removed from union contracts.

Until unions in the United States take these clauses out of their contracts, their hands are tied. Workers may feel they have no other option than to believe the untruthful and self-interested leadership of a Donald Trump.

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Staughton Lynd is a lawyer, writer, historian and social justice activist who lives in Youngstown, Ohio.

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