Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Remarkable Union Leader

I learned last week from the UE web site that Boris Block died last month at the age of 82. Known to all as “Red,” an appropriate description of both hair tint and political outlook, he was a remarkable leader in a unique union.

He was one of the last of a cadre who held together the UE through a roller-coaster history from the end of World War II to a generational changing of the guard in the 1980s. This period included:

●The biggest strike wave in American history in 1946.
●The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, effectively outlawing labor’s most successful tactics.
●The Cold War witch hunt, launched in earnest in 1949, which led to the UE being driven out of the CIO and left severely weakened by raids from other unions.
●A series of further defections in the 1950s led by “left” forces seeking accommodation with the newly unified AFL-CIO.
●A modest resurgence by the union in organizing and bargaining victories in the Sixties, Seventies, and early Eighties.
●And finally, just beginning to be felt at the time of Block’s retirement, a new devastating loss of membership due to massive plant closings by General Electric, Westinghouse, WABCO/Union Switch, Allen-Bradley, Stewart-Warner, Litton, and numerous smaller companies.

A typical “service” oriented union could not have survived these upheavals. But the UE was far from typical. Rejecting the partnership with the boss approach that dominates American labor, for the UE it has always been “them and us.” To this day it maintains the most democratic structure of any union, still limits the salaries of officials to no more than those of the highest paid working members they represent, and relies on a network of stewards and activists on the shop floor to pursue the union’s objectives.

Red Block wasn’t typical either. Capable of serious intellectual discourse he was also a masterful communicator with workers of all backgrounds. Dead serious about his commitment to the class struggle, he possessed quite a sense of humor as well. Enjoying a well deserved label of tightwad when it came to handling the members’ money he could be quite generous on a personal level.

There are a couple of appreciations of the full span of Red’s career on the UE site and I’m sure more testimonials will be forthcoming. I want to offer some brief personal observations.

I first met Red shortly after he was elected UE General Secretary Treasurer in 1975. He was visiting UE Local 1139 in Minneapolis where I was a new member, recently hired on at Litton Microwave. I was at the time still somewhat ambivalent about the UE. I had been warned by some that there was still a strong influence of what I had been raised to call Stalinism. On the other hand I was already impressed with what I had seen of the democratic structure, their militant approach on the shop floor and the UE’s strong opposition to the recent Vietnam war. So I listened to a talk he gave to about forty at a local membership meeting with great interest.

It sure didn’t sound like any “Stalinist” speech I’d ever heard. He combined an excellent analysis of the objective situation facing the UE and the rest of organized labor with appeals to the best traditions of our class struggle heritage--interlacing sharp wit throughout. I was impressed.

As was the Local 1139 custom, most of us hung around after the meeting for some informal discussion over hot dogs, pickled herring, and a thin, colorless liquid that they insisted on calling coffee. Red, of course, could not pass up such a feast and we found ourselves sitting together at a table. I complimented him on his speech and then tested him with a curve ball I’d often pitched to union bureaucrats; I asked, doesn’t the need for a Labor Party of our own flow logically from the situation you laid out? I was mildly surprised when he agreed without hesitation or qualification. He suggested that if I felt strongly about this I should start raising discussions in the local. If I could convince them we should submit a resolution to the UE convention.

As a matter of fact I did just that. It took a while, but the 1978 UE convention unanimously adopted a resolution from Local 1139 calling for the formation of a Labor Party. Fifteen years later, this union that Tony Mazzocchi fondly called “the mouse that roared,” played a key role in the launching of the present Labor Party project.

As I came to take an active role in Local 1139 I encountered Red numerous times at District Council meetings and conventions. He was also particularly helpful during our 1979 negotiations with Litton that led to a bitter six-week strike.

When we started negotiations in the late summer the inflation rate was at thirteen percent. Labor’s “friend” in the White House, Jimmy Carter, was demanding that wage increases not exceed seven percent. Litton, one of the toughest antiunion employers around, patriotically announced they were standing behind our President all the way–at least on wage increases. It was clear from day one we were headed for a major battle. Litton workers, most of whom had been hired within the last five years, were to launch their very first strike.

Now there’s a lot of science that goes into negotiating a contract–more so with today’s computer technology, not yet available in 1979, that can instantly crunch any set of what-if numbers. Venerable institutions also come in to play to take care of essential tasks once a strike is called. But guiding this up close and personal side of the class struggle to a successful conclusion is also an art. Red was a Renoir in this art form.

Along with our District President, Frank Rosen, Red emphasized to us that this was not a contest between negotiating committees. Our members were our only reliable source of power–and it would be they who would suffer from any screw-ups we committed. We could suggest and attempt to inspire but should be careful not to raise unrealistic expectations. We should also listen very carefully and have a good idea of what those we spoke for really were prepared to fight around, what was acceptable, what was a deal breaker.

This may appear to be an obvious common sense approach. Unfortunately, it’s far from typical in the American labor movement. Often strikes begin with much bombast on the part of union officials, soon followed by caving in to the boss demands, coming back to recommend a disappointing settlement as the “best we can get.” Sometimes we see the opposite, though hardly better approach from prideful, inflexible leaders who, lacking any tactical judgment, simply “stick to their guns” until the bitter end of a lost war of attrition.

This is not the place for a full history of the Litton strike. It’s enough to say that the company threw down the ultimate challenge of attempting to replace us and run the plants without us–not yet a common practice at the time. Red was very helpful in working with the shop and local leadership to deal with the anxiety that “permanent replacement” inevitably evokes. The risks were frankly acknowledged. Without hubris we explained why we thought the strike could still be won and what we thought was needed to respond to this escalation by the company.

At the end of the day anger and determination prevailed over fear. Less than one percent of the strikers were lured in to scabbing. The few dozen “permanent replacements” the company hired off the street were met by mass, vigorous picket lines. An injunction limiting our picket lines proved to be too much for the Plymouth Police Department to enforce after some arrests of militant grandmothers caused them great embarrassment. After a couple of weeks of these scuffles and negative publicity Litton finally agreed to a settlement most 1139 members saw as a victory.

Red often passed along some of the wisdom he had acquired obliquely, through humorous anecdotes. Once, during a break in the Litton negotiations, he told me of coming to Minneapolis a couple of decades earlier to help prepare a strike at a major UE shop. Just as he was building up to a stem-winding conclusion to a rousing speech to the workers assembled at the union hall a business agent appeared at the door to the auditorium and announced, “hot dogs are ready!” At that point every one got up and started filing out to the dining hall. Somewhat perturbed, Red later asked the business agent why he hadn’t delayed the call to food until the speech was finished. The b.a. explained that timing was critical. Left in the water too long the hot dogs would start wrinkling.

I understood the underlying moral to this story was not that Minnesotans were vulnerable to growling stomachs. Rather it was a way of humbly reminding us that our members, for better or worse, don’t always share our sense of priority and will not be easily diverted from theirs even by our gifted oratory or writing.

Even though Red wasn’t involved, this lesson was still fresh in my mind the following year when I was part of a team sent to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to organize a Litton run away plant. We went there prepared to focus our campaign on the two-dollar-an-hour wage differential between these plants only about 200 miles apart. We soon discovered that the mostly women assemblers were not all that concerned about their wage rates–which were better than anything else available in the area. They were, however, seething about treatment issues. Fortunately, we didn’t try to force feed our game plan. We were able to make a quick adjustment in our strategy--and we went on to win the biggest union organizing victory in a manufacturing plant in the history of the state.

While working on the Sioux Falls campaign I was subject to the same frugal per diem rationed out to the regular UE staff. At that time the meal allowance while on the road was eight bucks a day. Mostly in jest, I once asked the General Secretary Treasurer if he didn’t think this was a little on the cheap side. He explained quite seriously that it was understood this may be insufficient to meet all your restaurant bills but, after all, you were paid a salary that was supposed to be enough to provide for your groceries. The meal per diem was meant to cover only the extra expense of eating out above and beyond your normal food bill. And, I must admit, Red strove to stay within these guidelines personally. More than once we encountered one another at a Chicago area White Castle during District Council meetings.

In the Eighties companies such as General Electric, and the Big Three automakers, started advancing new schemes, which they attributed to their successful Japanese competitors, for labor-management cooperation on the shop floor. They were known by such names as Quality Circles and Team Concept. GE invited UE, along with the other unions they deal with, to join them on a tour of Japan to see how this worked.

The other unions eagerly accepted the junket invitation–and returned home to work with the boss on improving productivity. The UE declined and I remember Red explaining why.

UE was most interested in Japanese labor relations but learned about them through their fraternal ties with Japanese unions, such as they do today with Zenroren. As a matter of fact, even though Japanese industry can be credited with many innovations the Quality Circle scams were based on the philosophy and methods of “scientific management” developed by the American Frederick Winslow Taylor, beginning in the 19th century. Taylorism had been introduced to Japanese industry during the American occupation at the end of World War II. A very old product in a new, imported package. Industrial unions had cut their teeth on battling Taylorism and the UE was committed to continue to do so. I heard him coin the oft-quoted proverb, “after the lion and the lamb lie down together it’s the lion who gets up and burps.”

Red retired in 1985. My membership in UE ended the following year after the Litton plant was closed and I eventually returned to my original home town of Kansas City. I saw Red only once more, at a demonstration in Washington. But I’ve often remembered this union leader, skilled politician, and a real character of the game.

1 comment:

John said...

Great article !!