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Confessions of a Labor Editor

I think it was sometime in December 1993, only nine months after arriving in Racine, Wisconsin, that I began to lose it. I’d always been a slow writer, and the weekly deadlines at Racine Labor were beginning to beat me down. Of course, working for a union paper, I’d been drinking. Soon after Thanksgiving I began to feel an odd twitch in my right side. “Liver pains,” a friend at the Racine Labor Center bar suspected. “And you’re only twenty-nine. Impressive.”

During solitary lunches at the local KFC, I began muttering to myself while scanning the Wall Street Journal—required reading since it’s the only daily paper in America that still takes labor seriously. Then one day a particularly noxious Paul Gigot column sent me straight over the edge. I did the one thing that every journalist knows to be a clear sign of dementia. I dashed off an outraged letter to the editor. I regretted it as soon as I sent it. But in my addled state—driven by deadlines, numbed by alcohol—the whole ugly episode was quickly forgotten.

And then, on the morning of December 30th—the day Racine Labor’s special year-end issue was supposed to go to press (it didn’t)—I got a very strange long distance call.

“I just wanted to thank you. I can’t give you my name, but I wanted you to know that there are many people here who really appreciate what you said.”

“Excuse me?”

“What you said, what you wrote.”


“In the Wall Street Journal.”

And there it was. The lead letter in the December 30th issue. They’d entitled my missive, “Fewer Smokestacks, More Poverty.” Not exactly my point, but not entirely inaccurate either. Gigot had praised Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson for bravely reforming Wisconsin’s welfare system and creating thousands of new jobs. I argued that Thompson’s welfare pilot programs had failed, and that meanwhile he had deliberately allowed high-paying, unionized factory jobs to disappear, turning Wisconsin into a low-wage haven for business.

Back then, only the stray historian even bothered to examine labor’s putrefying flesh.

In the coming days, I would receive responses even stranger than the first. In mid-January, I received a thick parcel from the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel & Railroad Group, a Moscow-based outfit intent on building a 4,500-mile rail link between Russia and the United States. “Reading in Wall Street Journal your article on Smoke Stack America I feel that this letter will get into right hands,” the cover letter began. It went on to explain that, yes, the project would despoil huge swaths of untrammeled wilderness in Alaska and Siberia. But it would create tens of thousands of union jobs! Sounded good to me.

Given the fact that I had started out as nothing less than an environmental reporter at In These Times, the left-liberal newsmagazine in Chicago, the packet made for one of those little ironies with which a journalist’s career is littered.

Another was the timing of my decision to hitch my star to the labor movement. In 1993, when I started at Racine Labor, a catatonic Lane Kirkland still occupied the eighth floor of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters and to most the American labor movement seemed little more than a decaying corpse. This was long before John Sweeney’s insurgents would topple labor’s ancien régime, and years before fresh-faced college students would clamor to join the AFL-CIO’s Union Summer. Back then, only the stray historian—equipped with a coroner’s stomach and a eulogist’s pen—even bothered to examine labor’s putrefying flesh.

I wish I could claim that I went to Racine like some latter-day Dos Passos character, selflessly committed to the cause of the “worker.” Unfortunately, the truth is far less heroic. In late 1992, I was downsized by the eternally insolvent In These Times. When Racine Labor called the next spring, I was ready to relocate.

Huddled along Lake Michigan 70 miles north of Chicago, Racine is a prototypical Rust Belt town of 85,000. With its crumbling brick factories and struggling downtown, Racine is the land that post-industrial America is trying hard to forget. Not all of its factories have closed, and in many of them union workers still bargain collectively with management for fair wages. It’s an economic arrangement as outmoded—and dangerous—as the New Deal legislation that makes it possible.

Even worse, people in old union towns like Racine still cling to archaic ideas like economic democracy. With their demands for fair wages and decent benefits, they set a very bad example for a population supposed to be awed by the power of the global economy. The mulish persistence of union workers in cities like Racine provides an unsettling reminder that only three decades ago, the American labor movement regularly mounted more strikes than any other union movement on earth.

A strike broke out during my first month in Racine. Like so many great labor battles, this one involved automobiles—GM automobiles. Of course, this was Racine in 1993—not Flint in ’37—so the walkout wasn’t aimed at a crucial parts plant. This strike involved just 33 Teamsters in the service department of a local Oldsmobile dealer. Nevertheless, it featured all the drama—and tragedy—that accompany much larger strikes.

Life on the picket line at Frank Gentile Oldsmobile had been fun at first. For two weeks, the strikers had wandered up and down Highway 20, enjoying the mercifully warm Wisconsin spring, waving righteously at the union faithful who honked as they went by. The Gentile pickets even had fun flipping off scabs as they drove into the dealer’s lot. But then, while a dozen Teamsters meandered slowly past the side entrance, a scab gunned his car through the picket line, plowing a striker up on the hood and depositing him back on the pavement.

The striker, bruised but not badly hurt, was still screaming about it when I showed up with my notebook. “These people are willing to kill you. Literally fucking kill you!” Of course, the company didn’t really want to kill him. Gentile was happy to just permanently replace him instead.

I began to understand why unions stopped striking.

Like so many unionized firms, Gentile seemed to relish the prospect of a walkout. In the negotiations leading up to the strike, the Olds dealer called in Wisconsin’s premier union-busting law firm to bargain with the Teamsters. The union asked for a modest raise in its hourly wage. Gentile’s attorneys countered by saying they were going to wipe out the hourly wage altogether and replace it with a piece-work pay scheme. With some workers likely to lose as much as $10,000 a year, the Teamsters decided they had to strike.

It’s a decision that very few unions are still willing to make. In 1977, there were 3,111 work stoppages in the United States. In 1981, however, Ronald Reagan famously replaced the nation’s striking air traffic controllers and wiped out their union. Companies across the country quickly followed Reagan’s lead, seeing every strike as an opportunity to destroy their unions. By 1996, the number of walkouts was down to 372. As the Gentile strike entered its second month, and the company showed no signs of settling, I began to understand why unions stopped striking.

Unions in Racine have always been more militant than most. In 1933, Racine was one of the first cities to be swept up in the wave of organizing triggered by the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Racine gained notoriety as America’s “Little Moscow” as the city’s socialist-led labor council organized dozens of local factories. In March 1934, when a strike in Racine paralyzed the Nash auto plant—and shuttered the company’s main factory in Kenosha as well—President Roosevelt summoned the leader of the Racine local to the White House. He returned from Washington with the assurance that FDR had taken “a personal interest” in the strike. Less than a month later, the company settled, and soon Nash’s Racine employees were helping produce the first union-made cars in America. This was three years before the UAW’s famous sit-down strike against GM in Flint and seven years before the union would initial its first contract with Ford.

Since 1896, when striking typographers in Racine started their own daily newspaper, the city’s labor battles have been recorded, and urged along, by a series of left-leaning union papers. Racine Labor was founded in 1941, when the city’s unions hired a socialist from the Illinois coal fields, Loren Norman, to edit it. For 30 years, most of them during the red-crazed days of the Cold War, Norman published a remarkably progressive paper. He condemned the witch hunts of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, and in 1968 supported Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war crusade for president. Norman even published front-page pictures of long-haired youths getting “clean for Gene.” In 1972, Norman was succeeded as editor by Richard Olson, a U.S. Army veteran who’d protested the war while still in the service. Olson came to Racine Labor after leading an organizing drive in a Wisconsin cannery, and left in 1979 to join the UAW’s national staff. Olson’s successor, and my immediate predecessor, was Roger Bybee, a Racine native who’d long been a mainstay in southeastern Wisconsin’s progressive political community.

Bingo fundraisers filled the main hall more often than union conclaves.

I was hardly qualified to carry on their tradition. I grew up conservative in upstate New York, the dutiful son of a General Electric middle manager. My earliest exposure to labor came through my father’s laments against his plant’s militant union president. Though proselytized by leftists in college, I learned little about labor during my conversion experience. Unions once had influence on campus—the UAW gave crucial support to Students for a Democratic Society in the early Sixties—but labor was anything but hip when I reached college in the eighties. I finally picked up a few facts about unions at In These Times, but I arrived in Racine remarkably naive about how the labor movement actually worked. The strike at Gentile Oldsmobile, small as it was, would open my eyes.

I had assumed, since there were only 33 Teamsters working at Gentile, that the strike, even if it went badly, wouldn’t have repercussions far beyond the dealer’s lot. It turned out, however, that the Teamsters didn’t just represent the Gentile workers, they also represented nearly 200 employees in the half dozen other car dealerships in town. Over the years, the Teamsters had bargained with all the dealerships in Racine to create a roughly equivalent wage and benefit pattern at all the dealerships. The brilliance of this kind of pattern bargaining is that it stops competing companies from trying to undercut one another by paying lower wages to their employees. Pattern bargaining means that workers are no longer pawns in an industry’s war. Of course, when one company breaks the pattern—as Gentile was trying to do—the system collapses.

I was beginning to perceive, in microcosm, the magnitude of the troubles that faced the American labor movement. Before leaving Chicago, I’d dutifully read Which Side Are You On?, Thomas Geoghegan’s impossibly bleak book about his life as a labor lawyer during the seventies and eighties. But I’d assumed that its darkest passages reflected some sort of Irish-Catholic inner turmoil, not the actual state of American unions. But as I would discover, Geoghegan had, if anything, soft-pedaled labor’s problems.

Look at Racine. In the late seventies, Racine Labor had roughly 15,000 subscribers, virtually all of them union members making good money in stable jobs. By 1993, Racine Labor had barely 7,000 subscribers. It’s hard to exaggerate the economic devastation wrought by the loss of those union jobs. On average, union members make 33 percent more than non-union workers. Once cast out of Eden, they trudge into the non-union world, lucky to make $7 an hour extruding children’s toys. And America’s bizarrely stacked labor laws make it increasingly difficult to bring unorganized workers back into the union fold.

In 1993, the fall of union power in this corner of Wisconsin was nowhere more apparent than at the Racine Labor Center. Sitting in a sea of tarmac, with sickly shrubs guarding the entrance, the Labor Center was virtually devoid of vegetation but awash in red ink. Built in the fifties by the city’s CIO unions, the Labor Center still boasted a 400-person meeting hall, plenty of office space and a well-stocked bar. But now Bingo fundraisers filled the main hall more often than union conclaves, and many of the offices were empty since the unions that once inhabited them had ceased to exist.

Thankfully, the Labor Center bar was open almost every night. Profoundly depressed by the antics of the non-union youth at Racine’s “Vintage Rock Cafe,” I preferred the company of the Labor Center’s UAW retirees. Over shots of Hot Damn, the retirees—along with the occasional active member—would relate to me the fine points of labor politics, with the strike at Gentile offered as an increasingly ominous object lesson. As the strike lingered into its third month, a leader of one small UAW local, which had been on strike several years before, wondered “what the hell was wrong” with the Teamsters.

“They’ve gotta start getting serious.” What should they do?

“They’ve gotta focus on three things: Solidarity, sabotage, and vandalism.” (Hmm…. ) These were the indispensable ingredients of any successful strike, he said. I had heard stories that, during his strike, manure had been dumped down the skylights of the plant and onto the machines. I asked him if the stories were true. He just winked and bought me a beer.

Ironically, even as the Teamsters at Gentile languished out on Highway 20, no union seemed more militant on the national level in 1993 than the “New Teamsters.” Led by Ron Carey, the reformer who’d won the presidency in the union’s first-ever rank-and-file election in 1991, the Teamsters bargained hard with United Parcel Service and later successfully struck the nation’s major trucking companies.

But Bert Thomas, the head of the Racine local, was no “New When Teamster.” When Thomas bothered to come to the Gentile picket line, he always showed up in a late-model American luxury car. One day Thomas promised to give a striker $10 if he’d burn his New Teamsters hat. As the strike dragged on, the rift between Thomas and the rank and file grew.

Gentile, of course, claimed that the service department payroll had been killing its business. And, of course, the Teamsters replied, how then had the company survived three months of dismal sales caused by the strike? But winning such arguments counts little in the field of industrial combat, and while Gentile refused to bend, the workers were beginning to break. None of the Teamsters had crossed the picket line, but by the fourth month many had given up on both Gentile and the union, and found other work.

Back at the Labor Center, talk about the Teamsters—and Thomas particularly—grew more heated. (Of course, none of this went into the labor paper.) Clearly, the strike was entering a crisis phase, but Thomas didn’t seem to have a strategy for keeping the members involved or rallying outside support. This was especially inexcusable given the union heroics of Racine’s past.

Dick Fought, who ran the Labor Center when I arrived in Racine, was a legendary character who liked to rail against the spineless “bootlickers” and comfortable “fat cats” (the union hierarchies and staff) who were destroying the movement. Dick had earned the right to complain: during the troubled eighties he had been president of the union at Racine Steel, and he had managed to keep both his local and the company alive during a series of vicious corporate attacks. In 1980, corporate raider Victor Posner purchased Racine Steel and, as with his other acquisitions, quickly proceeded to bleed it dry. In 1983, as Posner’s vast holdings lost $45 million, he took $10.4 million in salary and bonuses. In 1985, the year Racine Steel was taken through bankruptcy, Posner garnered $12.7 million, making him the highest-paid CEO in the United States.

A bankruptcy judge eventually unloaded Racine Steel on a local partnership led by a 31-year-old securities dealer who had previously been censured for selling bogus investments to retirees. When the new owners insisted that the company could survive only in a “union-free” environment, Dick and the local started pressuring Racine’s City Council to cancel a bond issue vital to the company. The partners quickly returned to the bargaining table. When they then demanded that the union accept pay cuts of roughly $2 an hour, Dick sought strike authorization from the membership: they gave it to him in a 249-to-8 vote. Again, the partners relented. Eventually, the union members accepted a contract with modest pay cuts, but with strengthened grievance procedures. In an era of plant-closings and de-certs, it was a remarkable victory.

But that wasn’t how things were playing out at Gentile. As the strike ground into its fifth month, the picket line turned ugly. On the increasingly rare occasions when Thomas showed up at the dealership, the workers barely acknowledged his presence. When Thomas finally scheduled a community-wide rally in front of Gentile, the strikers organized a separate demonstration of their own. It was a very bad sign.

Finally, the two sides reached an agreement near the end of the strike’s fifth month. The union was permitted to stay, but under a “modified” piece-work pay scale. The scabs, naturally, kept their new jobs. Most of the original Teamsters were long gone. Some of the younger guys seemed to have just disappeared. With the older members, I heard rumors of broken marriages and repossessed cars, but it wasn’t something the Teamsters wanted pursued in Racine Labor. Reporting on the settlement, I called it a draw. Perhaps, given the state of American labor law, it was.

Three months later I had my run-in with the Wall Street Journal. In early 1994, just as the twitch in my side graduated to a throb, a temporarily flush In These Times called and asked me to return. By April, I was back in Chicago.

I’ve been back to Racine, of course, lured by the Labor Center’s cheap drafts and priceless conversation. There’s been no magic transformation since I left, but the new leadership at the AFL-CIO has clearly convinced many people that labor is entering an historic era of rebirth. John Sweeney may not be the reincarnation of John L. Lewis, but he has reopened debates within the labor movement that have been closed since the thirties. And while Sweeney has yet to score any great victories, consider how feeble even the great organizing drives of the thirties looked at times. By 1939, after a severe economic downturn and bitter union in-fighting, the UAW’s dues-paying membership at GM had dropped to only 6 percent of the workforce. Many CIO unions were in the same beleaguered state. Only the arrival of the World War II boom ensured that the new unions would survive.

Even more to the point, in company towns like Flint, corporations controlled public culture more effectively then than they do now. By the thirties, the fierce “Americanism” campaigns of World War I and the twenties had assimilated most of the nation’s vast immigrant population into the culture of laissez-faire capitalism. But, as historian Gary Gerstle argues in Working-Class Americanism, those hyper-patriotic campaigns unintentionally created expectations among white ethnics that they would be fully included in the democratic and material promise of American life. When the moribund capitalism of the Depression failed to deliver on that promise, those newly emboldened Americans looked to the labor movement for relief. Today, our advertisers peddle an even more potent brand of Americanism, a hyperconsumerism that promises personal liberation on a scale never before imagined. But once again, American capitalism is having trouble delivering the goods. Twenty years of wage stagnation and record levels of income inequality have left many wondering how liberated they really are. Again, many Americans are looking elsewhere for more authentic forms of liberation.

To exploit this opportunity labor must renew its efforts on what Michael Denning calls the “cultural front.” Subsidizing a thousand new Racine Labors would be a start, but television is the medium that matters to a working-class audience. Since unions will never get more than token coverage on corporate TV, labor needs to start a cable network—and not a bland, PBS-style enterprise, either. Labor should hire a thousand Michael Moores and turn them loose producing sitcoms, documentaries and feature films. The idea is not without precedent. In 1926, the Chicago Federation of Labor launched WCFL, a broadly popular radio station that broadcast dramas, comedies, baseball games, and decidedly anti-corporate news. At its peak, more than 100,000 households subscribed to WCFL’s listener magazine. Perhaps, if we do it right, we can begin to create a society whose core values are rooted not in the privatized excess of the corporation but in the shared prosperity and collective purpose of the labor union.