Back to the Future
by Tom Laney
July 8, 2005
All this talk about the our supposed labor leaders–Andy Sterns and Joe Hansens, the Gettelfingers and the Sweeneys--is a debate outside what needs to be done. It’s irrelevant. The most constructive thing we can do about all the AFL-CIA types is to ignore them as best we can. We need to jump out of the box they’ve built for us and look to our coworkers for some real answers.
What we need is a conversation about the leaders we have on the jobs.
My first experience with the UAW’s rank & file fighting style came as a line worker at Ford in 1972. I was a temporary QC worker in the pre-delivery department. My first two weeks were spent in one of the highest seniority departments in the plant, writing up interior trim defects. The job was pretty easy because many of the cars had no interior trim. It wasn’t that they were low-price units. It was that the line workers in the trim department didn’t put the trim on.
The chassis workers didn’t put the seats in either. Or the windshields or the cowlboards, mufflers and tail pipes. And the motor line workers didn’t put the engine dress-up parts on. It was quite a sight, all those cars and trucks moving on down the line as parts carriers.
Cars and trucks were pushed into pre-delivery before the company shut the lines down and sent the line departments home early. Usually after about two hours of very intermittent work. Production workers received four hours of call-in pay while the pre-delivery repairmen put the vehicles together. Then they came back the next morning and did it all over again.
This was the way the Ford workers in my local union fought speedup and job eliminations in 1972. They just didn’t do the extra work. And after two weeks, Ford would back off the job cuts, the line workers would settle in to building pretty good cars and trucks for the model year.
After my two weeks in pre-delivery I was sent to the trim department where I was assigned to installing brake housings. The job was to grab a stamped metal brake housing with the pedal swinging within the housing, sit on the driver’s side floor, slip the housing holes over two studs and shoot two nuts on the studs with an air gun.
There was sometimes a problem with the studs being too wide or narrow and the housing could not be placed over the studs. I was a rookie trying to bend the studs to make them fit the housing. The old dudes around me told me that was repair work and that I should just leave the housing for the section repair man to fix when the car came to him about sic units down the line.
The General Foreman Don Gilbert had other ideas. Gilbert was a tough guy, very loud, obnoxious even, who was always throwing his weight around with the new guys. Big Yeller who seemed to have little control of all the spit that would fly out of his fat face when he was screaming at you. You learned to not get too close. He brought a little piece of pipe to me to fit over any bent studs so I could bend them out or in and make the housing fit. So I did that for a few hours until my relief man, a very high seniority guy, Arty Wegman showed up to give me my break.
When I handed my parts apron to Art, he saw the pipe right away.
"Gilbert brought it down so I could bend the studs."
"That’s repair work," Arty said as he winged it into the railroad tracks that ran just across the aisle from trimline No. 1.
"When Gilbert asks you what happened to it tell him to see me."
So I came back from my break and "stocked" the brake housings to the unit which means I just threw the part in the car when the studs were bent and left it for the repair man.
It wasn’t long and Gilbert showed up wondering what happened to the tool? I referred him to Arty who was about 20 feet up the line relieving another guy.
Gilbert was yelling at Art as he crossed the line to him.
"What the hell did you do with the tool I gave that rookie?"
"I threw it in the fucking railroad tracks where it belongs. You leave the fricking thing where I put it."
"That kid is going to put those housings in every unit."
"I mean he’s going to fit everyone on and install every housing."
"Not if it means he has to repair it."
"I’m running this department."
"You run the department. We’ll take care of the jobs. I’m tired of you frickers fricking with rookies."
Art was in Gilbert’s face, seemingly not minding the spit in his pissed off state. The guys were rooting Arty on and Gilbert was red as a cherry bomb but knowing all his explosions were lost on these guys. He left the area.
The 260-something average Arty went back to talking bowling and laughing his ass off with me.
All this talk today about the bigshot hacks in the AFL-CIA, UAW, UFCW, SEIU etc. and what they want to do at their level about moving the dues around and playing games with organization doesn’t do much for me. It’s irrelevant.
The repair jobs are gone. The relief jobs are handed to low-seniority "upgraders". The UAW committeemen assist the company in deciding which jobs go and who will do the extra work. FordUAW put in a physical re-hab center to help injured workers get back to the overloaded jobs that injured them in the first place. Severely injured workers are thrown onto the street. The UAW washes their hands of them and advises them to find a Workers’ Comp attorney.
Where are the Arty Wegmans today? That’s the question for working people who believe in democracy, solidarity and direct action.
Art didn’t want any part of UAW hackdom or Left elitism and intellectualism. He was in love with his family, his friends on the job and bowling. He was absolutely determined to make his small corner of the world as fair and just and enjoyable as he could possibly make it for himself, his family and his friends. He was a leader for the lineworkers’ solidarity culture that made auto work bearable and occasionally, even fun. Art and a couple of thousand other guys believed in fighting for good jobs and they were very good at it.
Lawrence Goodwyn says that there are people like Art Wegman in every workplace in the world. I know several in my own local. They have never stopped fighting throughout all these years of Left/Right collusion in the bashing of their good nature. They turn deaf ears to the reformists and wait to see who is really interested in their battles. They are the beginning point, not some Jonathan Tasini-approved elitist porkchoppers. They are the real leaders for democracy.
I believe that and believe that these are the guys we should be looking for and when we find them, we should do everything we can to connect them in a very big conversation about how we win at work and how we win on the road.
All the other stuff, the questions of how we talk ourselves out of the fight, who can best manage the retreat, who can lead us to better management of dog eat dog, all the diversity and academic BS, all the Left attacks on our good nature, the gay marriage debate, the constant applications of the racist and sexist labels to good people, the incessant suggestion that white workers are bad people, all these things are not just a colossal waste of time; they are incredibly destructive.
We need to see working people in a new but older light. Most people, of all colors - even white - are fundamentally good and helpful. I don’t care what Elly Leary says about white supremacy. Or, what Roland Sheppard, whoever the hell he is, says about the older generation not being willing to fight. They are wrong. I don’t know too many white workers who think they’re better than anyone else. I know a lot of older workers who will fight their socks off for their coworkers.
What we really need is the truth. We need the Left to stop attacking us and the democracy and solidarity most of us believe in. Who are THOSE people really working for?
The truth is, there are good people everywhere. There are people of all ages and colors who spend their lives helping each other.
We need to work together to work together. How can we do that if we have no work? We need to act to defend our jobs. We need to fight for full employment. We can only act responsibly and ethically by adopting a healthy and true view of ordinary workers like the fighters we should know are all around us.
Political activists who cannot see these good folks are part of the organizational problem we all face. They do us serious damage. They need to take a closer look. They need to change.
Those who are aware of these good folks but consider them incompetent, need to drop dead. Enough of their hate of the common man and woman.
The solidarity movement starts with those who have never stopped moving for each other . The political activist section needs a new and loving view of all working people.