The Moral Power of Rust Belt Labor

2019-11-19T08:57:01+00:00October 25th, 2019|

As recent strikes by unions across the region demonstrate, collective action remains as vital as ever.

By Connor Coyne

On June 5, 1998, after a week and a half of tense negotiations between the UAW and General Motors had stalled out, thousands of GM workers in Flint, Michigan walked off the job and formed orderly picket lines outside the Flint Metal Center and Flint East. For fifty-four days, the men and women marched before the vast gates off Van Slyke and Bristol and Dort Highway. My brother was in high school at the time, and I was home from college, keeping an eye on things when my parents made periodic trips to visit my sister out-of-state. On quiet nights, late, I’d wake my brother and we’d pick up a dozen donuts from some twenty-four-hour stop and take them out to the picketers. We’d park our car – the Saturn SL or the Chevy Lumina – and borrow a couple of signs, and march back and forth for an hour or two with the workers.

In hindsight, most historians have concluded the results of that strike were a mixed bag for both sides. For my brother and me, it was a defining moment in which we saw a lifetime of stories about the moral and political power of labor coalesce in front of our eyes, and witnessed firsthand the long tradition of union activism in the Rust Belt and Midwest.

I thought of that tradition when, last month, nearly fifty thousand UAW workers again went on strike over compensation issues, factory upgrades, temp worker status, and a raft of other issues. Even as the UAW and GM have reached a tentative settlement, which rank-and-file workers are presently considering, the Chicago Teachers Union gone on strike to reduce classroom sizes and increase support staff. While the two organizations are vastly different – the CTU is a public-sector union supporting teachers, and the UAW is a private-sector union supporting factory workers – there is an appeal to justice in both organizations’ core concerns.

Autoworkers view the tiered-wage systems, by which one worker might earn more than twice the wages of another for doing the same work, simply on the basis of when they hired into the company, as a grave injustice. Chicago’s teachers, meanwhile, view over-packed classrooms and understaffed schools as devastating obstacles to provide a quality education to the district’s more than three hundred thousand students. Justice, it seems, is a watchword for labor on the march in 2019, and these two strikes argue forcefully that the industrial Midwest is on the cutting edge of today’s labor movement.

This isn’t a recent development, of course. In Chicago itself, labor history looms large in the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the Pullman Strike of 1894. The former, in support of the eight-hour workday, ended with a bomb and deaths, a sham trial, and the execution of four pro-labor warriors (a fifth committed suicide in jail). The latter, conducted by the American Railway Union against low wages and high rent in Pullman’s company town, was the first nationwide strike in the U.S. While these two events ended in tragedy, they galvanized larger movements. Unions in many industries won the eight-hour workday in the decades that followed, while Pullman was forced to sell off his residential properties.  These strikes and others put an exclamation point on Chicago as a place where workers asserted the power of collective action and bargaining.

Labor organizing continued to flourish across the region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the same year of the Haymarket Riot, the American Federation of Labor was American Federation of Labor was founded in Columbus, Ohio, followed forty-six years later by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in Pittsburgh. Violent strikes rocked Pittsburgh steel in 1892 (in Homestead), 1909 (in McKees Rocks), and westward from Pennsylvania in 1919. In 1936-1937, Flint hosted the Sit-Down Strike, which involved a worker takeover of multiple plants and an attack by city police firing bullets and tear gas. At the end of that strike, General Motors was forced to recognize the UAW as its sole bargaining partner, inaugurating the ascendancy of the modern labor union.

Throughout the twentieth century, unions were a force to be reckoned with. In 1945 and 1946 alone, millions of union members struck across the nation, including more than three hundred thousand UAW workers—more than six times the number involved into today’s strike. From the Detroit autowokers to Chicago meatpackers to coal to steelworkers in Pittsburgh to pretty much everyone in Rochester, nearly every major regional industry was affected by the postwar strike wave.

After fifty years of declining membership, the early twenty-first century has been, in many ways, a nadir for unions, with legislation and public sentiment often pushing against organized labor. But unions in the Midwest have continued to press forward. In 2011, a hundred thousand protestors overwhelmed Wisconsin’s largest-in-the-country capitol building for weeks in support of public-sector unions, many sleeping on the hard floors of the building and refusing to leave. While that effort was not successful for the activists, it inspired organization around the nation; some of the largest protests opposed to labor losses converged in Ohio and Indiana. Seven years later, across the Ohio River (and on the heels of another CTU strike), the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike shut down schools statewide for two weeks over compensation and health care issues. The union emerged victorious, securing a five percent pay increase for its members.

The modern labor landscape is extraordinarily complicated, especially in the Rust Belt. But contemporary strikes remain true to the long tradition of regional organizing, and, despite record-low membership,  public support for unions has rebounded in recent years. Here in Flint, we’ve had a firsthand seat to the growth and development of that tradition, from the Sit-Down Strike of 1937 through the most recent actions. Much has changed in the years between, but the underlying premise—that labor united is a force with both power and legitimacy—remains true today. ■

 

 

Connor Coyne is a writer living and working in Flint, Michigan. His novel Urbantasm: The Empty Room is available now.

Cover image of striking workers in the 1998 Flint UAW strike. Photo via Getty Images.

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