LaborNet - Internet Board
Global online communication since 1991 for a democratic, independent labor movement
Home | Current Blog | News Archive | Video | Resources | Back Links | About LaborNet

image image

PEN-L discussion of Bessemer loss
Source Marv Gandall
Date 21/04/12/19:58

Louis rightly draws our attention to the “enormous differences between the strength of the left back then and today” as a major contributing factor to the decline of the contemporary trade union movement.

There was an additional complication at Bessemer, where the workers were already making twice the Alabama minimum wage. Union drives typically succeed where workers are behind and are driven by the example of the better pay and conditions of unionized workers elsewhere in the same industry. This wasn’t the case at Amazon, which some have pointed to as the reason for the RWDSU’s failure.

But neither was it the case in the Flint sit-down strikes which Louis describes, where a strong local nucleus of well-organized and politically-conscious left-wing activists made all the difference, and acted as the catalyst for the great wave of union organizing in auto and other heavy industries which followed. So despite the relatively better pay and conditions of the Amazon workers, it’s conceivable a strong organized left could have resulted in a different outcome.

On 4/9/21 7:00 PM, Marv Gandall wrote:
The much hoped for union breakthrough at Amazon has apparently fallen short for all of the same reasons which have thwarted a revival of the labour movement for more than four decades: 1) anti-union legislation at the federal and state level; 2) anti-union propaganda and obstruction by the employers, and 3) questionable union tactics. Jane McAlevey provides a characteristically incisive analysis - as far as it goes.

It’s worth noting that there were similar obstacles to organizing when the union movement was on the rise. Today the argument is made that the workforce in a predominantly service economy is more fragmented and transient and therefore harder to organize than the industrial workers of previous generations concentrated in their plants and neighbourhoods. But this argument would not seem to apply to the mainly black workers who live and work closely together in Bessemer. More answers are needed.

Reflecting on the defeat of the union drive at Amazon in Bessemer, I made the mistake of comparing it to the Flint sit-down strike of 1936. I hadn't considered the enormous differences between the strength of the left back then and today. I should have known better because I wrote a review of Sol Dollinger's book on the Flint strike. He was married to Genora Dollinger who led the woman's auxiliary.

I doubt that the workers in Bessemer had anything going for them that was remotely similar to what auto workers had in Flint in 1936-1937. From my review of Sol's book "Not Automatic":

The auto union was a hotbed of radical politics at the time. Homer Martin, seeking allies in his fight to isolate the Communists, turned to Jay Lovestone--the leader of a group bitterly opposed to the CP. After firing Communist Henry Kraus as editor of the union newspaper, Martin replaced him with the Lovestoneite William Munger. You could also find the Proletarian Party, which included future UAW leader Emil Mazey, the DeLeonite Socialist Labor Party, the IWW and many independent radicals in the ranks of the union movement.

Drawing upon her experience in the Socialist Party, Genora Dollinger explains how these groups reached out to workers. In contrast to the fractiousness of the 1960s and 70s, it is notable how the various groups were able to work shoulder to shoulder. Undoubtedly this kind of fraternalism would have a lot to do with the success of the strike:

"A considerable amount of preparatory work was done before the strike by radical parties. We had several very active organizations in Flint and Detroit: the Communist Party, the Proletarian Party, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. with the exception of the Communist Party, we all had our headquarters in the Pengelly Building, a very old building that became the strike headquarters of the whole United Automobile Workers Union Flint. Even as the strike was going on, we still had our rooms on the second floor, while the main activities in the auditorium were on third floor. Two years before the strike broke out, the Socialist Party in Flint organized the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). We held meetings in garages and in basements, secret meetings, so the people wouldn’t get caught and beaten up.

"As we got bigger, the Socialist Party started sending us their speakers from New York. Many of them were from the Brookwood Labor College. We put out leaflets and sold tickets for these meetings, which were held in the basement of the biggest Methodist church and in the Masonic Temple. We held lectures in socialism mainly, plus labor history and current events, focusing on what was happening politically Those were very popular meetings. We would get three and four hundred people at some of our meetings."

[View the list]