Where Did Labor Go Wrong?

Bob Owens

Sep 9, 2002
(Sent to me via E-Mail)

The following is a slightly abridged version of an article by Genora Johnson Dollinger, who was the captain of the Women's Emergency Brigade in Flint, Michigan during the UAW sitdown strikes. She talks about the state of the union movement in l987--50 years after that strike. Seventeen years later the issues still resonate, as we discuss how to reorganize the labor movement.

This article appeared in a special edition of UAW Chevrolet Local 659's newspaper, THE SEARCHLIGHT, on Feb. 10, 1987.

Dollinger also cowrote a book with her husband called "Not Automatic," about their experiences union organizing in the 30s.


In August I returned to Flint to celebrate with the UAW pioneers the 50th anniversary of the Sitdown Strike.

It was a visit filled with symbolism. The world-famous Chevron sign on the overpass between Fisher 2 and Chevrolet--the site of the beginning of the victorious Sitdown Strike by Fisher 2 workers--was being dismantled and dumped near Chevrolet plants 6 and 10. Many of the plants in the Chevrolet complex stood idle and rusting. Shockingly profound changes were taking place in the city of Flint that were palpable to the naked eye.

During my brief visit I toured around Buick and Fisher Body 1, Buick, now bearing a name too complex to remember, had doubled in area size since I knew it, yet it employed no more than it did decades ago. A vast automated complex had gobbled up space.

And what had happened to Fisher 1--fabled in song and memory, scene of enormous picket lines where strong voices rang out in heartfelt sounds of "Solidarity Forever" and "We Sall Not Be Moved?"

We fought for this union with our hearts, minds, bodies, and our blood. And now this huge structure stands like a ghost ship anchored in time.

A union diminished in vitality

Returning after 50 years--and seeing the removal of the Chevron sign, the empty factories, the forlorn and worried looks on the faces of men and women in anticipation of further industrial decline--indelibly impressed on my mind the fortunes of a union diminished in strength and vitality.

Was this the city, which brought industrial unionism to America in the most dramatic display of worker solidarity and sitdown action ever seen in the world, now tragically digging its own grave? Was the 50th anniversary of the UAW-CIO victory marking the demise of industrial unionism in America?

These were my thoughts as I drove through the silent, forbidding streets of a city marked by slums and out-of-work, out-of-hope hands and bodies.

Lessons of 50 years ago

In 1937 our gallant strike electrified and mobilized an entire nation. All of working-class America thrilled to our victory. They knew our fight was their fight.

We proved again, as the railroad and coal workers had proved before us, that in union there is strength. We fought against our own intolerable conditions, but our fight was the fight of the entire nation of exploited men and women.

When Chevrolet Local 659 initiated and fought for the escalator clause in our contract, we again paved the way for these benefits for all workers. Our pioneering efforts brought us praise and support. We were considered a progressive and decent union, and we gloried in our reputation. In those early years our objectives were broad and general. We wanted justice for the workers of America and nothing else.

And today?

But, sad to admit, no longer are we in the UAW considered to be crusaders. Our objectives became narrow and selfish. We became an affluent two-car family with a two-car garage with a summer cottage and a winter home; and we forgot, while watching TV, that we were leaving half of America behind!

Oh, how we celebrated our pension plan! It was wonderful to be able to exercise early retirement at full pension--while most of America had to get by on skimpy social security checks.

How much better it would have been if our union had used its enormous political and economic strength to have won federal pensions for all workers and a federal health-insurance plan with guarantees for all--such as the unions won in England, Germany, Canada, and every major Western European country.

Bitter harvest

But we didn't do it. And now we are reaping the bitter harvest. Solidarity is dead and union busting is rampant. Union pension funds are raided by derelict, bankrupt, dishonest capitalist entrepreneurs. Even the vaunted GM, Ford, and Chrysler pension funds are not secure. It was not so long ago that Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy.

And the pension funds built from worker contributions--in lieu of wage increases--were, and are, under the sole domination of the corporation. Our union leaders, sadly derelict in their duties, failed to see the possible failure of one or more of these funds. They were not farsighted enough to negotiate even joint control of the funds paid by the union members.

Pension funds in Europe are controlled in part or in whole by the unions and are used for socially beneficial purposes of building workers' housing, etc. In any case we would have been much better off having fought to make pensions universal for the workers of the entire country, rather than industry by industry.

In this way, we could have maintained worker solidarity, and recognition of our respective needs.

Need for political voice

There are more auto workers than lawyers in the United States, yet we have never had a genuine auto worker elected to Congress! The same for the steelworkers, service employees, etc. There is not a genuine worker from our ranks to speak for us--but Congress is loaded with lawyers and businessmen to legislate for the interest of the Big Business capitalists.

Failing to exert our influence in the Democratic Party, (as I am convinced we would have failed), we might conceivably have organized a third party of labor, civil right organizations, small farmers, environmentalists, the peace movement, the women's movement, and concerned professionals. These movements have remained fragmented, and the strength and power of the American labor movement is weakened, emasculated, and supine.

The preferential pension plans of the big unions bought us off. Our political influence is at its nadir. Our working class is mesmerized and helplessly paralyzed as it watches the hemorrhaging flow of jobs out of the country.

When will it end?

Only when we recognize that the old spirit and determination of union solidarity was the right way to go. Solidarity is absolutely vital for our survival against the philosophy of dog-eat-dog and the-devil-take-the-hindmost.

When will it end? When we realize that what we gained on the economic field through our strike and negotiations was all minimized or taken away from us in the political arena. This is not yet understood. We have not--and cannot--maintain our economic gains while we remain political slaves.

As dark as today's picture is, some of us who have been around the labor movement these many years feel there is still a measure of time left. I was 23 years old at the Battle of Bulls Run. There are many thousands of thinking potential leaders in their 20's in the ranks of the UAW today who are capable of rousing their co-workers.

History teaches us that they must start acting now in conjunction with other militants in other unions, and ally themselves with other Americans concerned about the future of our country and our families....Time is still on our side.

Rememer, the UAW-CIO was born because the old AFL, labor leaders had failed us. Every leader of the UAW-CIO was only a rank-and-file worker in the auto plants at the time we built this union.

The new upsurge of labor will not come from the stagnant and incompetent leaders we have today. There will be a new regrouping of those who care about America--and ALL its people. This will be because there is no other rational course for us.

One could only imagine what Mrs. Dollinger would think of people like Sonny Hall, Jim Little, Bobby Gless and Gary Yingst.

As these guys tell us that we are powerless to defend ourselves against concessions they sit back and collect six figure salaries and reward themselves with perks. Then they hypocritacally spout out cliches like "United Invincable" or "Solidarity".

They say that we are fighting by giving away everything, they define other unionists as our enemy and the company as our friend.

Yes. I could only imagine what such a woman would think of todays company friendly unionists that blame the members for the downfall of the labor movement. Who as they sit back and blame the members stuff their own pockets with the members dues.

Sonny, Jim and company claim to be Industrial unionists, but they surround themselves with people like Bobby Gless who cant even define the term "Industrial union", and calls the Flight attendants "brainless" when they threaten to strike in order to defend their contract.

Could you imagine if Bobby Gless was a UAW official back then? He would have done the same thing he did when he was the Section Chairman at JFK. After the Hard Copy incident the members, on their own initiative started "working to rule". Management was not happy. The International was not happy either. So they sent their boy Bobby on a mission. Bobby went from shift to shift, lying to the members that "everything has been settled, all the other shifts are 'working normally'.". He didnt realize that some who had witnessed his earlier attempts to decieve the members were there for his latest round of lies and the members threw him out of the room.

The only reason why Gless became what was to be a one term President is because his main opponent was an aircraft cleaner and many mechanics felt(wrongly IMHO) that since we voted to have a mechanic run Local that we had to have a mechanic President. Despite this he only won by a slim margin.

Bobby begged for the International job once he realized that he had no chance of being re-elected. This was told to me by other Presidents who said that right in front of Bobby they told Little they wanted Videtich, not Gless. By hiring Bobby, Jim Little knew he would have a yes man who would do whatever he wanted. Videtich who had been more outspoken in defense of his members was not considered "loyal" enough to the International at the time. Apparently that too has changed. A six figure salary and a generous pension can be a powerful temptation for some.

Jim Little often cites his "Labor Heritage". But its in a far off land where its unlikely that anyone could actually check to see if any of it is true. Jims speech gives no hint of his Scottish heritage, so it can be assumed that any real experience he had with the Scottish Labor movement has left as much of a permanent impression on him as his Scottish accent. However we can check on other more recent relationships and links in Littles life. Jim rarely cites the fact that his father in law was in AA management. Imagine that! Why doesnt Jim talk about that so much? He goes on and on about his Labor Heritage from what for all intensive purposes was another life but fails to mention his very close ties to AA management.

I've heard some describe the TWU/ATD leadership as a collection of "punks, drunks and cowards". Unfortunately there is much truth to that statement, they certainly do not possess any of the charecteristics of Labor Leaders of the past.