Lessons of the Detroit Strike Part 2

In the May Industrial Worker, Eric Chester proves it was the systematically corrupt AFL-CIO "reform" leadership in the Detroit newspaper strike that played a key role in the collapse of the nineteen month strike. I think this is true. I simply hope to add a few details of other reasons the strike was lost--and what to do about it.

1. Racism. The newspaper workers and their unions had done virtually nothing about the racism in the make-up of their own ranks, and little about the racist, anti-worker postures of the two newspapers before the strike. Indeed, many of the reporters and staff workers were complicit with this racism. When they walked out, declaring that their strike could not lose in a "Detroit--Union Town", they took little notice of the fact that this is a predominantly black city and many of its residents had plenty of unanswered problems with the unions.

2. The strikers never made their issues or demands clear to the community, perhaps because the community might have rejected some of the demands that failed to incorporate technological gains into work life. Rather than demand a shorter work week with no pay cut, for example, in some instances the strikers demanded retaining archaic work rules to protect jobs. In any case, few people in Detroit understood what the strike was about, other than to protect union jobs, many of which were color-coded.

3. Beyond the question of ideas and mass support, the AFL-CIO had no plan to organize against owners who openly declared they wanted to smash the unions. The strikers did little to prepare the community for the battle. They simply walked out the door and expected the community to pour onto the picket lines. The who, what, when, where, why simplicities of any strike were not planned--and the rank and file walked without asking for strategies. Either inside the unions, or in the community, there was no organizational base for a serious strike.

4. Individual strikers ceded their analytical abilities to leaders they should have known are corrupt, and they trusted those leaders to create a magical victory. Before the strike, at the strike votes, there was no real planning or discussion about the next step, what Eric Chester makes clear is the necessary stoppage of production. Instead, at mass meetings that I attended, the strikers cheered and applauded the "new" leaders of the AFL-CIO (they were still running for election then) and believed it when the hacks, said, "No matter what it costs, the AFL-CIO will never let this become another PATCO." So after a twenty year period in which the AFL-CIO beat up nobody but their own members, the newspaper strikers actually believed they would be saved by the AFL.

5. It isn't possible to overestimate the treachery of the AFL and especially the UAW, leadership, They systematically disorganized, coerced, inveigled, wrecked, every potential effort to build community support and militancy--to the point of breaking up picket lines and identifying striker-militants to the police. As Eric Chester says, they (the Carey-Trumka-Sweeney reformers and some local hacks) finally rammed through the unconditional surrender (now posed as a new method of striking), a scheme they had in the works for months as honest and persevering members pounded the pavement. In some locals no real vote was ever taken.

6. At some point, even decent people who become instruments of their own oppression also become responsible for their fate. Many former newspaper strikers are now organizing a demonstration in Detroit on June 20th. They continue to refuse to openly criticize the AFL bosses, and they fail to criticize their own errors. This is a PR posture, rather than a stance to help move the working class forward. Indeed, if the demonstration comes off as planned, it will simply build the AFL and the Democratic Party, leaving the working class in worse shape still. These failed strikers cannot let go of the kind of thinking, the fear of freedom and responsibility, that clings to the authoritarian idea that someone other than the rank and file is going to win strikes, and the wish that some magic other than halting production can bring victory. Even their own harsh experience hasn't taught them they are wrong--though a few probably like the little limelight that comes with going around the country claiming you were victimized by a nasty corporation.

Built into any analysis of the past is a suggestion for the future. Here are, actually, two:

The June 20th demonstration must have an anti-racist presence that attacks the treason of the AFL-CIO. This summer is the 30th anniversary of the Detroit rebellion, an uprising that caused the creation of thousands of industrial jobs for black workers, and caused the expansion of programs for poor mothers and kids. A rank and file commemoration of that rebellion would make the point.

There may be a teachers' strike in Detroit in the fall. If it is to win, the teachers and other school workers need to learn the lessons of the bogus newspaper strike. The conscious/organized rank and file will need to build deep ties to the community--beyond anything the leadership promises. That also means educators must put money demands on the back burner (teachers are the most organized workers in the U.S., and they have some of the last jobs with tenure and health benefits). Wage demands will not build alliances that will give school workers power. Instead, (1) class size, (2) academic freedom (the right to reject racist, anti-working class state regulated exams), and (3) a shift in the tax structure back onto unproductive wealth (profits, inheritance, capital gains, etc). should be the demands of the strike, and everyone should know what they are--and why. AFL-CIO leaders are likely to look to politicians and the business community as a source of strength. In a job action, rank and file educators need to look to their own, the people who have most to gain from school: poor and working class parents and kids. They're the next lever for social change: democracy and equality.

Rich Gibson

College of Education

Wayne State University

Detroit 48202

This was published in the July 1997 edition of the IWW's "Industrial Worker."