Part Twelve - The 1984 New Orleans Metal Trades
A strike is more than just an action. It is not like a demonstration where you get out and yell a bit then go home to your normal life. A strike by workers effects ever minute of their daily lives; it is an act of sacrifice, and the longer the strike goes on the greater that sacrifice becomes.
I am of the opinion that workers do not win long strikes, because no matter what concessions are won in the end they never make up for all that working people lose while on strike for a long time. I believe that if workers on a job decide that a strike must occur, then great preparation and timing is very important to keep the strike from becoming too long. If there is no way to build the union power to prevent a long strike, then the workers should advance their struggle on the job with different tactics, and thus continue to get their pay checks. Preparation for a strike should include two things:
- 1. The organization of the strike should have the goal of completely shutting off the employer's cash flow. This can be done by workers refusing to supply the shop with supplies and services, by workers refusing to handle goods produced by scabs working the shop, and, if possible creating a consumer boycott. Then, if possible, set up picket lines wherever possible to broaden the strike and make a greater economic impact.
- 2. Unions should continuously raise money for a strike fund and when the strike begins start food drives, so as to lessen the financial impact on striking workers.
Radicals and intellectuals tend to play up strikes as glorious events, without really understanding the personal hardships that striking workers go through. I have always made a point to talk to the rank and file workers, and to listen to their stories of their hardships in strikes that I was directly involved in and in those which I came from the outside to support. I have walked many miles on picket lines and in marches supporting striking workers, including postal workers, telephone workers, textile workers, truckers, longshoremen, flight attendants, musicians, Greyhound drivers, UPS workers and others. I have been out on picket lines and marches for farmworkers, but they try to kept their workers on the job and depend on consumer boycotts to win their demands. I have also been the organizer of a Wobbly strike in Long Beach, California, so I have been able to hear the stories of many rank and file strikers. Understanding the hardships of striking workers has shaped my strong views about strikes.
The three strikes that had the most lasting impact on my views that I came in from the outside to support were:
- The Solar strike in San Diego. Though this was not the first time that I walked a picket line, it was the first time that I continuously walked a picket line and took the time to talk with striking workers.
- The 1983 Phelps Dodge strike, where I spent a week at and was very impressed by how strong the workers were. Never before had I seen people so committed to what they were doing, even though it seemed like the whole world was against them. Radicals and pacifists talk about commitment and sometimes will engage in symbolic acts to try to impress others with their commitment, but all such people could not even begin to show the type of real commitment that I saw in the Phelps Dodge strikers. That type of commitment was not something you could do and then return to the safety of your home, rather it was the commitment of continuous action where everything was on the line.
- The P-9 strike in Austin, Minnesota of the mid-1980s. I made three trips up to Austin, and what impressed me the most was not only how committed they were to see their strike through, but also how resourceful these workers were.
My experience has taught me that strong commitment is needed to see a worker through the hardships of a long strike. Observing something and/or reading about something is not the same as actually experiencing it first hand. Before the 1984 New Orleans Metal Trades Strike I had only been on strike as a worker twice and those were very short strikes. During the months leading up to the negotiations everyone had a feeling that this time things would be different; the maritime industry was in a worldwide recession, and so was the oil industry, which we were dependent upon. At the same time that those two factors were causing a slow down of work, our industry was hit hard by the policies of the Reagan administration.
Reagan had been elected president through the strong support of working people. This was a good example of how people can be manipulated into believing that a great enemy can be a friend when the right words are spoken. I will not say that any president has been a true friend of working people, but Reagan was the worst enemy of working people since Hoover, and maybe the worst of all U.S. presidents. Much has been written about Reagan's terrible polices and there effect on working people, such as what he did to the air traffic controllers, but the maritime industry just may have been the industry hardest hit by Reagan's polices.
The following four actions by Reagan had the greatest effect on this industry:
- 1. Reagan eliminated the tariffs on U.S. ships having major repairs done outside of the U.S. The reasons these tariffs were put into place included; keeping the shipyards working and this allowed U.S. inspectors to keep an eye on the work.
- 2. Reagan removed these subsidizes on new construction in U.S. shipyards. The subsidies made up the difference between the cost of building a ship in the U.S. and building it elsewhere. The reason behind the subsidies was the same as the tariffs. it is interesting to note that after the subsidies were removed, Congress gave tykes Brothers a subsidy to build container ships in South Korea. This caused an end to new construction of ships (outside of Navy ships) in the U.S. for many years.
- 3. Reagan opened the door for U.S. flagged ships to reflag themselves in countries of convenience, by removing all the advantages of a ship having a U.S. flag.
- 4. Reagan cut the budget of the Coast Guard and redirected it away from the inspection of foreign ships coming into U.S. waters to his so-called war on drugs.
These policies pushed an industry that was in a recession into a full-blown depression and shipyards began to close all over the U.S. The unions, rather than organizing and taking action against these enemies of working people, completely wimped out are started to accept concessions, and this led to working people to compete with each other as to who would be willing to work for less.
Three shipyard companies, for the purpose of contract negotiations, and other reasons, were organized together into a ship repair association. The unions of those three companies were organized together in the Metal Trades Council but the Metal Trades Council did not operate as a single unit with one contact. Rather each of the seven unions had there own contact. In other words the employers were better organized than were their employees. We all understood how bad things were in our industry, and going into the negotiations, we knew that this contract was not about what we would gain, but how much we would lose. It was rather depressing to think that we were heading into a struggle, not to gain anything, but to reduce how much we were going to lose. We knew that we would lose double-time pay for overtime hours and that there would be a cut in pay and benefits. The employers wanted even more. They wanted to kick one union, the Teamsters, out of the industry. I would like to say that the strike was fought as an act of solidarity with the truck drivers, but this was not the case; though some of us viewed it in that manner, the union bosses did not.
What the employers demanded was that the workers be called up each day and had to show up at the ship rather than the shop, and that our pay would begin from the time we reached the ship and end when we left the ship. This would mean that we would have to drive ourselves to any place along the river from Venice to Baton Rouge, and then we may have to wait for a launch and ride the launch to the ship before our pay would begin. Then we would work for however long it would take to do the job, and our pay would end when the launch picked us up or we left the ship to the dock, and we would still have drive ourselves home.
There ain't no way we could accept this. Not only would that greatly reduce our pay, but also there was the matter of safety. Can you image driving up to a hundred miles or so to a job site, waiting an hour or so for a launch, working maybe 16 hours, then riding the launch back and driving another hundred miles or so to get home? Then having to do the same thing the next day? We knew that, in time, some worker would fall asleep at the wheel and maybe die in an accident, so we knew that if a strike were to take place, it would not be just about pay and benefits, but also about our right to life itself.
For the first time that anyone could remember, all the unions got together in a joint meeting to talk about the contract and take a joint strike vote. One by one the head union boss from each union got up, spoke about the need to strike and about the need to maintain solidarity. Each told us that this might be a long strike and that we needed to prepare ourselves for the hardships we would have to face. If you boiled all the fat off of what they were saying, what was left was; we had to go on strike, it would be a long strike, we would lose the strike and the only question was how much we would lose.
We were told we would be setting up picket lines at the three shops and the repair dock. We had all heard the rumors that two of the companies were going to open scab shops under different names elsewhere. Someone asked if we could picket the scab shops, and we were told that we could not.
I had raised my hand to talk, but was not called on until there was no one else left that wanted to speak. The union boss running the meeting knew that I was a bit of a radical and did not want to hear what I had to say; thus he hoped that my raised hand would get tired and I would give up. Finally, when I was called upon, I got up and said something to the affect that it made no sense to be picketing empty shops, while the employers were able to continue the work with scabs who would be working right next to union seamen and longshoremen. I stated that if the bosses wanted us to show up at the ships, then the ships, and where they docked, was our real job sites and that is where our picket lines should be; so we should shut down the whole damn river from Venice to Baton Rouge.
I was sure that the other unions, seamen, longshoremen, chemical and refinery workers and union truck drivers, would not cross our picket lines; for we had never crossed theirs. If we did this, I said, the strike would be over in just a few days. I went on to say that the only way we could maintain our struggle and the unions survive was for all workers in the maritime industry to unite and act together for all of our benefit. If we did this, then we could end all scab labor on the river and union workers would then control the river.
It goes without saying that the piecards did not like what I had said and tried to come up with reasons why we could not do this, but I challenged each reason.
Seeing that they could not get me off their backs, I was told to sit down and shut up. This, I was unwilling to do, so they tried to sick some goons on me to throw me out of the meeting. When they started to come toward me, a number of my fellow workers that had worked with me stood up, and as I have already mentioned, these were not people you wanted to mess with. The goons realizing that they were outnumbered by a group of badass working stiffs, who were more than capable and willing to inflict costly damage on them, backed off.
The union boss that was chairing the meeting then called for order. After things calmed down a bit, he started talking his bullshit again. He stated that we could not do as I suggested because it would be illegal, and they might arrest the union leadership. If the leadership were in jail, he said, then the strike would be lost. I responded by saying, that this strike was going to place a lot of hardship on us, and that maybe the leadership should share in that hardship by being willing to go to jail, if needed, and that unions are organizations of working people, I assured him we were capable of carrying on the strike without them if need be.
I had never seen a group of people turn so red in the face with anger in unison before. Every one of the union bosses was steaming at what I had said. Then one of them called for a strike vote. I naively thought that if the workers voted for a strike that we could resume the discussion on picket lines, but within seconds of the vote authorizing the strike, the chair adjourned the meeting even without a motion or vote to do so.
Later that evening I got a call from someone who did not identify himself warning me that I was walking a dangerous path and that if I showed up at the union hall again I would be arrested. They hung up before I could say anything. Later on I would receive some phone calls threatening my life.
Well, we went on strike, only picketing empty shops, following the orders of our union bosses like good little sheep. The companies quickly got an injunction limiting the number of pickets. They did this so they could easily remove tools and other equipment for the two scab shops that did, in fact, open up. The one thing that we had not foreseen was that there would be a split in the owners association. It seems that the company that did not open up a scab shop, (perhaps they did not have the resources to do so, or for some other reason chose not to), after a month broke with the association and signed an extension of the old contact.
Now I was in the same situation that I had witnessed many other workers in, facing the hardships of a long strike. I remember the realization I had of how different it was looking at something from the outside and that of directly experiencing it. Since we received no assistance from the union, we all had to cut our expenses down to the bare minimum. I must admit, even though I knew that I had to greatly reduce my spending, it was something that was very hard for me to do. I loved the New Orleans culture, going out to the nightclubs or hanging out in coffee houses was something that I did a lot. Hell, I hardly ever ate meals at home, for the restaurant food was so good. Now all that changed for me; all I could do was pay rent and eat the cheapest food I could find. Those with large families had it harder.
Strikes that go on for long are not the glorious events that so many middle class radicals seem to think they are. Rather, they become something that you have to do, but don't much like; kind of like going to the dentist. How do you explain to some intellectual middle-class radical the pain in your heart when you must tell your young children that they cannot have any new toys? Or that they must eat beans, rice and bread two times a day, and there is not even money for desert? Or that you cannot buy them new shoes when their old ones wear out? A young child will not understand the reasons for a strike, and you are left with a painful feeling of guilt; that somehow you are responsible of the suffering for a young one. There are no words that can really express this; for these are emotions, not intellectual concepts.
I could tell you of seeing grown men break down and cry over the hardships of their children. This is just something that you cannot understand without ever having experienced it.
At first I tried to wait this thing out, but like everyone else I was forced eventually to find whatever work I could. About two months into the strike one of our crewmembers made contact with the Iron Worker's Union, which had a lot of construction work building the Louisiana Worlds Fair. Among the work they had control over was the building of a water ride. This ride had a good deal of piping on it, and the Iron Workers allowed some of us striking pipefitters to do that work. Unfortunately, that work only lasted two and a half weeks, but we were very thankful for that work.
Four months into the strike I was getting a little work on shrimp boats, when I heard about a contractor across the river in Algiers that needed workers for an oil pipeline out in the swamps. Where there is deeper water the pipeline boat could lay the pipe from great roles off the boat itself, but in shallow water the pipe had to be laid in by hand. So this contractor was hiring workers to lay the pipe in a section of shallow water through a swamp. They gave you rubber boots that fit all the way up to your armpits, and sent you off in to the swamp you went laying pipe on the pipe racks.
One day I had one of my most startling workplace experiences. I was carrying a length of pipe with another worker, wading by some cypress trees. Among the smaller trees you would push branches out of your way. I went to grab on to what I thought was a branch, but right before I did, I noticed that it had two eyes staring at me. It was a damn snake. I froze with my hand just inches from it; it looked at me and I looked at it. Then, not needing much thought, I decide that a parting of company was in the self-interest of both snake and man. I slowly pulled my hand back, dropped the pipe and skidoodled back to the boat like a bat out of hell. It took a little bit of time before I was willing to get back into the water, which the contractor docked from my pay. After that I stayed as far away from any of the cypress trees as possible.
Seven months into the strike the machinist's union broke solidarity and signed one of the worst contacts I had ever heard about. They took a $3 an hour cut in pay and gave up double-time pay for over time. If that was not bad enough, they also agreed to something I had never heard of before; rather than classify each worker as a helper or journeyman, or have different levels of helper and journeymen, as some places have, they agreed to classify the work into four classifications. These classifications would be based upon the level of experience it would take to perform the job. That is what they would be paid. So, if the boss thought a helper could do a job, even if the job was done by a journeyman with 30 years experience all that would be paid was helper's pay.
Another month went by and we were informed that a settlement had been reached and a contract signed. The contract cut our pay by $3 an hour, reduced the amount the company would pay the union for our medical benefits, and we lost double-time pay for over time. They reached a compromise with the truck drivers, in that the company would continue to provide transportation outside of the city limits of New Orleans. For any work within New Orleans, we had to provide our own transportation. It was basically the same contract that we had turn down with the exception of the compromise on transportation.
With an 8 month strike behind us, we were all hoping to be able to get back to work and end the hardships we had endured. Our crew showed up for our night shift and, as we were talking about the situation, we discovered that none of us had been at any meeting since the meeting before the strike. This meant that the union had imposed the contract on us. Here we had endured an 8-month strike and none of us who had gone through the hardships of the strike had any say in the settlement. One person had gotten a copy of the contract and found that the company would now deduct out $2.30 an hour and give it to the union for medical coverage. The way the insurance worked, you had to work 600 hours in 6 months to be covered and then you had to work 300 hours every 3 months to keep it. Previously if you did not have the 300 hours, but had worked enough hours over 300 in the three months before, you could make up the missing hours that way. Now, if you lost your insurance you had to start all over again, and the union made this even more difficult by not allowing you to make up those hours. This meant that all of us had lost our insurance and had to hope that we could get 600 hours in the next six months to regain it. In monetary terms that came to paying $1,3$0. This also meant the union was getting $2.30 of the $3 cut in pay. Add to that the money that the company paid into the insurance and the union got a nice 6 months of profits. No wonder they imposed the contract on us; the union bosses made out like bandits off of our suffering.
To make matters even worse, in the 8 months of the strike, work had slowed to the point that the employers had to settle because it was not economically feasible to keep the scab shops open. They needed the union halls to provide them with workers, because there was not enough work to keep the scabs. In the month after the strike ended I only got one week of work. So I said to hell with this, sold everything I could and moved to a farm in Kansas.
The strike had become a very depressing situation for me. Damn, what good did all that hardship bring us? We were beaten down by the bosses, swindled by the union, and, in the end thrown out of work by Reagan's economic policies. I kept wondering just who in the hell was on our side? The answer was always the same, nobody but ourselves. In truth, the situation has always been the same. The only people that we working people can count on are each other; that is, those that don't scab on us. The only good thing I could point to from this strike was how we stuck together and tried to help each other out.
This was no small thing, given the make up of the workforce. Taking in all the trades at Dixie you had inner-city and country Black folks, Mississippi rednecks, Greeks, Hispanics, Cajuns, New Orleans French, Creoles, and an assortment of other people. All stood together as one and there was no talk of disrespect.
Some people do not understand my criticism of the AFL-CIO (AF of Hell-CIA as some have come to call it). It does not really have anything to do with philosophy; rather it comes from my experience trying to deal with the greedy parasites that control the unions.
To me, THE UNION is more than just a card, a badge, or a piece of paper; more than piecards sitting behind a desk dreaming up new ways to sink their fangs into us; more than just a name or fancy label. THE UNION, is a bond between workers and what seals that bond is SOLIDARITY. THE UNION, is an understanding between workers that says; "together we are strong and alone we are weak." THE UNION should go beyond borders and reach out to every worker the world over with a message that together we workers have the power to bring peace and well-being to all upon the face earth.