The Way Forward
- Toni Gilpin, “A Louisville union built its strength as blacks, whites took on International Harvester
Our first link is to a piece by labor historian Toni Gilpin, an independent scholar in Illinois. She’s written a book about the clerical workers’ strike at Yale in 1984-1985, and she’s engaged on a book about the relationship between the Farm Equipment Workers (FE) and International Harvester.
As those of you from Illinois will know, one of the major chapters in the state’s history was the invention of numerous pieces of farm and construction equipment within its borders – International Harvester, John Deere, and Caterpillar (earth-moving/construction/mining equipment) all got their start in Illinois.
Gilpin’s tentative title for her book is The Long Hard Grudge: An Epic Clash Between Big Capital and Radical Labor in the American Heartland. It’s the story of the left-wing Farm Equipment Workers union and its relationship with corporate behemoth International Harvester.
The linked article is about a strike at IH’s Lousiville plant in summer-fall 1947 that involved 2,000 workers in an action lasting 40 days, and which resulted in victory for the plant’s workers.
This strike involved a union that no longer exists, that represented workers in Louisville for less than a decade, and a company that also no longer exists. But it’s a significant event in U.S. labor history because it showed the way forward – a way, not taken by other unions/memberships, but still representing the promised land of union strength in the U.S. South – well, in the U.S. period.
Here’s why it’s significant:
“What made this action run contrary to much conventional wisdom is that Harvester’s wages were generous by Southern standards. And nearly all of those who walked out had never been in a union before. And during the strike, whites and African-Americans demonstrated a level of solidarity unprecedented in then heavily-segregated Louisville. And one more thing made the ‘Southern differential’ strike of 1947 noteworthy, then and now: With only $61 in their local union’s treasury, the workers took on one of the world’s most powerful corporations — and won.”
IH had begun as the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. And it – like IH – had been strongly anti-union. In fact, a demonstration in support of the 8-hour day on May 4, 1886 that involved workers at McCormick’s Chicago plant erupted in violence in an incident that went down in history as the “Haymarket Affair” and which, not incidentally, also gave rise to May Day, an international workers’ celebration which is not celebrated in the U.S., surely one of U.S. labor history’s greatest ironies.
Unlike other corporate behemoths (GM, Ford, Republic Steel, GE), IH held out against unions until 1941. But by the end of WWII (1945), all its plants – which were in the Midwest and Northeast – had unionized.
But unionizing had been a tough fight that required a tough union to get the job done. That union proved to be the Farm Equipment Workers union – the FE – a pretty small operation that formed one of the unions in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).
The FE was radical and it was militant; it was, in today’s parlance, “in your face” all day, every day. One of the great labor quotes from an FE official: “The philosophy of our union was that management had no right to exist.”
After the war, IH expanded to the South, which was both low wage and non-union (a comparable policy still in effect today, and also the main factor driving offshoring of manufacturing). The company bought an aircraft facility in Louisville, Kentucky and retrofitted it to manufacture Cub tractors. In the 1950s, it was the largest employer in Kentucky (6,000 people), and the largest tractor manufacturer in the world.
However: in July, 1947, FE Local 236 got the right to bargain at the Louisville plant. And their first issue: the Southern differential, which meant that men making tractors in Louisville made 35 cents an hour less than men making tractors in Indianapolis (114 miles to the north).
Most of the piece gives details of the strike itself – FE 236 won – but here’s what the strikers learned, and what we still need to absorb:
“‘I never went to a meeting that somebody didn’t get up and make a speech about the reason we’re so strong and we can win — and they always said that they had the highest wages in the South, and I never saw that refuted anywhere. The reason we’ve got all that is because we stick together, black and white. They attack a black worker, and we’re there to do something. We’re going to walk out of that plant — this is the reason we’ve got the strong union. And they preached that constantly.’
“This ‘constant campaign’ carried into the community as well, with Local 236 at the forefront of battles in the late 1940s and early 1950s to desegregate Louisville. But to Jim Wright, perhaps the FE’s biggest impact came at the personal level, as those whites who had come into the Harvester plant as ‘real racists’ became friends with black workers there.
“‘They’d go along with [blacks], eat with them, go places with them, go hunting with them, walk out with them, work on a machine with them, have fun in the shop with them. That was a new thing for [the white workers]. That union had put what people call some kind of religious — I don’t mean a biblical religion — I mean a religious feeling of them sticking together.'”
Gilpin concludes: “…something remarkable happened at the plant that once stood on Crittenden Drive: Black and white workers there decided that none of them should be ‘second-class citizens,’ and fighting together, they got what they deserved.
This only happened once in U.S. labor history on this scale with a heavy manufacturing employer, and it took an aggressive, militant union to do it.
But the fact that it happened once suggests that it could happen again.
- Labor historian Erik Loomis has an interview up with The New Press, which is publishing his much-awaited (among labor circles) A History of America in Ten Strikes (September 2018)
On the 2 most important lessons for 21st-century U.S. labor organizers:
“First, the only way to create emancipation for workers is to embrace an anti-racist and anti-sexist America. The argument that class matters more than race in the past or present contributes to white supremacy by erasing the lived experience of workers of color and not confronting how white workers will so often choose their white identity over their class identity. The struggle against racism and the struggle against poverty cannot be separated.” (emphasis added)
“Second, the history of strikes and workers shows that workers can only win long-term or even short-term victories if the government is a neutral arbiter or is favorable to unions.”
On the interrelationship between American and global labor in the 21st century:
“In the modern world, American workers and workers overseas are deeply connected. The system of global capitalism, with corporations moving all over the world looking for the cheapest labor, affects everyone. It has destroyed American unions and the middle class while also ensuring that workers from Mexico to Bangladesh are unable to build their own middle classes. International labor solidarity is hard. Workers speak different languages, they have different cultures, and because workers, whether in the U.S. or overseas, often put their identities around race, religion, and nationality over that of their class, they too often demonize workers from other countries. This has to be fought if we are to tame the multinational corporations who rule our lives.”
- Robert Scheer’s interview with Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: The High Price of the American Family.
Squeezed is about the new precariat, the precariat of the middle class. Who are these people, and why does it matter that they’re being pushed downward into the lower middle and lower economic classes?
Scheer: “We had this illusion that drove much of American history, which is this ever-expanding middle class, stakeholders–yes, they were white males to begin with, but they were farmers, they were rural, the reason we have land-grant colleges is to, you know, these ordinary Americans are supposed to gain knowledge about their society and become the leaders of the future, and so forth. And your book is devastating, and based on factual information, statistics and so forth; this is not a tirade, it’s an important work of scholarship. But your book leaves one with a real sense of hopelessness about the current economic situation. You talked about people with PhDs who are in poverty. You know, I forget the phrase you have…”
Quart: The hypereducated poor.
Scheer: “…Large, large numbers of people not being able to get by when you talk the precariat–you’re talking about, what, 60 percent, 70 percent of the population, right?
Quart: “Well, you know, despite rosy employment numbers, 65 percent of Americans report living from paycheck to paycheck.”
Scheer: “Maybe it’s time we got to talk about class. And that people are trapped into an exploited and neglected class, even when they get PhDs, even when they do all the right things. So it’s not a question of a work ethic, it’s not a question of a right attitude. It’s a question of a rigged system, right?”
Quart: “Yeah, and it’s also people being afraid to talk about class. So I think this is part of it, I think there’s a lot of politeness, right? Everyone wants to be seen as middle-class, right. People don’t want to admit that even that category is a shaken and unstable one. So I think first we have to start acknowledging it and saying it out loud when things are not going well.”
Scheer: “So, I mean, isn’t it really cutting to the chase the issue, are you going to blame yourself, or are you going to blame the system?”
Quart: “Absolutely. That is the question. For me, saying that it’s not your fault over and over again [Laughs] is part of that. And I’ve joked that my book is radical self-help, because–and that’s what I think is optimistic and uplifting about it, is when we stop blaming ourselves and accusing ourselves of not doing something right, that’s when we look outward, and that’s when we can start to organize.”
Not-so-fun fact from the interview: “…62 percent of adjuncts make $20,000.”
Let’s all ponder that stat on Labor Day.