Wearing White: What Resistance Looks Like in America’s Heartland

Yves here. Readers, please welcome Toni Gilpin!

By Toni Gilpin, a writer, educator and labor historian with a Ph.D in American History from Yale University. She was in graduate school at Yale when the clerical workers there undertook an organizing drive and engaged in their first strike, and she is the co-author of On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University, 1984-85. She is currently at work on a book entitled The Long Deep Grudge: An Epic Clash Between Big Capital and Radical Labor in the American Heartland, the story of the left-wing Farm Equipment Workers and its relationship with corporate behemoth International Harvester. Toni lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband Gary Isaac, dog Phoenix, and whichever daughter might be home from college at the moment

There’s a different sort of resistance out there, one that’s been going on a while, in unexpected places. I visited one of them – South Bend, Indiana – on February 11.

That date marks the anniversary of the conclusion of the Flint sit-down strike, and to commemorate it many members of the United Auto Workers wear white shirts. That’s because back in 1937 when the sit-down ended, the workers – who’d just won a significant wage increase and their first contract – wanted to demonstrate what having a union meant: that they were just as good as the men who ran General Motors, the managers who sported white collars and kept their hands clean. Of course, most of the workers only had one good shirt, reserved for weddings and funerals. But they wore them into their plant that day.

So this past Saturday in South Bend, white shirts were much in evidence. UAW members from the Ford plant in Chicago, from various facilities in Detroit, and from other parts of Indiana came to South Bend to show support for the workers at the Honeywell plant there, who’ve been locked out by their employer for over nine months now. Other union members and community residents were there too; all told about 150 people showed up for the rally for Local 9 at the UAW hall on Main Street. Not all of them wore white, however, since they faced the same problem the workers in 1937 did: no dress shirts in the closet. Some improvised: one man bought a shirt at Goodwill just for the occasion. Others had pulled white tees over sweatshirts. The pastor who gave the benediction, himself a worker at the Chicago Ford plant, wore a Chicago Blackhawks jersey – Patrick Kane’s – which, since it was the away version, was mostly white.

There are a lot of presumptions these days about what UAW members from the heartland must look and think like and whom they want to associate with, but anyone who attended this gathering would find many of those notions challenged. The South Bend Honeywell workers are white, black, and Hispanic, as was the crowd in the union hall. The speakers’ roster included African-American city council member Regina Williams-Preston. “We need to shine the light on the injustice taking place here,” she told the crowd. April Lidinsky, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the local branch of Indiana University, was also an invited speaker. She was the force behind the Women’s March in South Bend which she organized, she said, because she knew women there could not afford a trip to Washington. Lidinsky, the daughter of a union plumber, recalled the difficulties her family had faced when her father had been on strike, and her repeated refrain – that “workers’ rights are women’s rights” and vice-versa – drew cheers.

Rank-and-file workers, of course, addressed the room as well, and their focus was broader than some might expect. Two auto workers from Detroit gave a brief presentation about the abuses inflicted on General Motors’ employees in Colombia; workers injured on the job there are simply fired by GM. The room then voted that a third of the money that had been collected that day for the locked-out Honeywell workers should be donated to the Colombia workers’ organization.

But it was a member of the Steelworkers union who might have drawn the most applause. “People need to realize,” he said, “that unions are the line of defense for our democracy.” I’m not sure how many people outside that room recognize that, but the management at Honeywell, which doesn’t have much use for either unions or democracy, understands it very well.

Honeywell is not putting the squeeze on its employees in South Bend because the company is in financial trouble: quite the contrary. It is a thriving Fortune 100 multi-billion dollar enterprise whose top executive, David Cote, receives over $33 million in total compensation annually, putting him near the top of America’s managerial elite. The business press thinks he deserves every penny. “Honeywell is outperforming its peers by virtually every metric,” reads a typical article, saluting the company’s “six-year streak of double-digit earnings growth and dividend increases.” Cote “orchestrated one of the best corporate comebacks in recent memory,” gushes Fortune. But he has other fans as well: though a lifelong Republican, Cote was frequently identified as one of President Obama’s “corporate favorites” and visited the Obama White House more than any other CEO. He was a key member of the Simpson-Bowles committee and is also a director of the New York Federal Reserve. “Cote has received far less public scrutiny than [Jeff] Immelt,” says one source, “although he may have greater influence over U.S. economic policy.”

The policies Cote embraces, at least at the company he runs, are simple and time-honored: give less to the people who actually make the products. Labor costs, Cote determined when he took over at Honeywell in 2002, were higher than at the company’s competitors, “a situation he couldn’t abide.” Not abiding meant, among other things, demanding that the workers at the South Bend plant accept deep cuts to their health insurance and a rejiggered seniority system.

But UAW members there made clear there were some things they couldn’t abide either, like givebacks to further enrich the 1%, and last May they rejected a concessions-laden contract. In response, Honeywell locked out the union rather than continue negotiations, and brought in “temporary” workers through Strom Engineering, which bills itself as “the nation’s most reputable industrial strike staffing company”: in union vernacular, a scab-herding outfit. Many of us went out to the Honeywell picket line on February 11 after the rally concluded, and so we got a chance to see – and jeer at – the fleet of big white vans the company utilizes to ferry the “temporary” employees in and out of the plant. It’s unclear just how much production has been maintained there, but the lockout didn’t prevent the Defense Department from awarding the plant a $47 million contract in early January. Honeywell’s last offer, which was little better than its first, was again turned down by the South Bend workers last November – just before their unemployment insurance expired. The Saturday rally was invigorating, but it’s been a tough and often lonely struggle for the members of UAW Local 9 there.

The workers may feel isolated but they’re not unique: for Honeywell the lockout has become standard operating procedure. Once a relatively rare management tactic, lockouts are now increasingly utilized without embarrassment by employers seeking to break those remaining pockets of union resistance. Honeywell employees in Metropolis, Illinois – just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, and yes, Superman’s home town – have been forced into two lengthy lockouts: one for fourteen months beginning in 2010 and another in 2014 that lasted seven months.

At the Metropolis plant, cake uranium is transformed into gas for nuclear power facilities, and so workers there – members of the United Steelworkers of America – handle chemicals that are among the most dangerous in existence. They feel entitled to good wages, adequate healthcare, and a decent retirement in exchange for their hazardous duty.

Honeywell thought otherwise – those labor costs are just too damn high – and locked out the USA members in an effort to impose substantial increases in employee health care premiums, along with the elimination of pensions and retiree healthcare altogether. The company endeavored to continue production through these lockouts with inexperienced replacement workers, a risk to the surrounding community that became all too real in 2014, when highly toxic uranium hexafluoride began leaking from the plant. So the USA members, already struggling through their lockout, found themselves and their families facing the additional strain posed by the noxious fog wafting through their neighborhood. (David Cote, of course, lives nowhere near Metropolis – no superman, he.) But hanging tough is something that Steelworkers are known for. Both lockouts concluded with the workers making some concessions but they retained the health care system that mattered so much.

Now Honeywell is trying the lockout ploy again, this time in South Bend. Most people who’ve never visited know of only one landmark there: the golden dome of Notre Dame University. But the campus is far removed, literally and figuratively, from the industrial section of South Bend, as one can drive off the interstate and through town to the Honeywell plant without realizing that there is an educational institution anywhere in the vicinity. There are no outposts selling Fighting Irish trinkets near the UAW hall, though if you are looking for a fight there are several gun shops just down the street, Femme Fatale being the one that caught my attention. South Bend doesn’t usually make the familiar list of rust belt cities, like Akron or Flint or nearby Gary, but it qualifies nonetheless: its other prominent landmark – the hulking abandoned Studebaker factory just south of the city center – makes that starkly evident.

At its height during World War II some 20,000 worked at Studebaker; where there was once a cacophony all has been silent since 1963, when the plant closed and laid off its last 5,000 employees. There were other manufacturers in South Bend, too, like Bendix, which made brakes for cars and airplanes: it is this facility that was taken over by Honeywell in the 1980s. The Bendix plant, in fact, was the site of the first sitdown strike that occurred during the organizing upsurge of the 1930s – it took place in November 1936, and the workers’ victory there introduced a tactic which would be replicated by auto workers in Flint a month later. All of the sitdowners became part of the nascent United Auto Workers, as did the workers at the Studebaker factory. Thanks to their union contracts the employees at these plants were guaranteed some measure of fair treatment at work and brought home good paychecks that bolstered South Bend through the 1940s and ‘50s. In those years manufacturing accounted for more than half the jobs in South Bend.

Workers in South Bend did not all experience life exactly equally, regardless of where they were employed. South Bend’s small African-American community grew exponentially during the first and second Great Migrations (the city is now about one-quarter black). Indiana, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, enforced both de jure and de facto segregation even in its northernmost cities and South Bend was no exception: blacks were relegated to the worst schools and confined to crowded, substandard housing. But a union paycheck made it more possible to challenge those circumstances. African-American workers at Studebaker, all of them UAW members, led the effort in 1950 to create Better Homes of South Bend, a pioneering – and successful – effort to purchase a tract of land “in a nice neighborhood” (i.e. a white one) and construct blocks of comfortable homes for black families.

The neat homes created then on South Bend’s west side – those that are still there – don’t look so inviting anymore. What happened in South Bend is a familiar rust belt story – boarded-up factories led to boarded up houses and decimated neighborhoods. It retains some industrial employment, but while Bendix once employed several thousand there are now fewer than 350 workers at the Honeywell plant. Notre Dame, now the town’s largest employer, isn’t paying enough to keep the town from hemorrhaging population or to get the poverty rate below 28%. Some of the few good jobs that still exist – for those without Ph.D.s, anyhow – are at the Honeywell plant. Or they will be, if the UAW members can get back into the plant with their contract intact.

That’s why the workers there are putting up such a fight: they know just how much is at stake, not just for them personally but for South Bend generally. Enduring a lockout, or a strike, is tough going. UAW members get $200 a week from the national union, and that helps, but it doesn’t match the wages the workers had been receiving. So the rank-and-file leadership – none of whom have been through anything like this before – have had to learn a lot in a short time. Like how to reach out to churches and community groups to stock the food pantry they’ve established in the union hall. Or where the social service agencies are that can help keep workers who can’t make their rent from being evicted. Or if there’s a way to interest the press in their story when no one covers labor disputes anymore. The local’s vice-president told me he’s never been so exhausted.

And that’s why those other union members got up early and drove several hours to South Bend to show their support for the Honeywell workers: because these struggles over union contracts are about something larger. They speak to the premise that working people deserve to be treated with dignity and to earn their just due. That the people who make the products should have the right to be part of the conversation that determines how the profits are divided up. Like the Steelworker said, it’s about democracy. A democracy defined not just by political representation but by economic justice as well.

So there is that sort of resistance – a concerted refusal to bow down to corporate greed and arrogance – going on out there, but it’s difficult to find. David Cote and his friends, whether they’re in the board room or the White House, don’t want you to know about it. It’s vital to them that they promote the notion that there is no alternative to the status quo. But the thing is: the managers of GM were peddling that back in 1937 as well. The white shirts worn on February 11 are reminders that, when enough working people realize that they are every bit as good as the folks in the front office, circumstances can change in a hurry.

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67 comments

  1. Deadl E Cheese

    The Democratic party rank-and-file really screwed themselves over by embracing electorialism over activist politics.

    Even with the disasters of McGovern, Carter, and Mondale I feel as though things didn’t start to get really hopeless for those in the bottom four wealth quintiles until the Democratic Party restructured itself to focus on electioneering, especially national elections, and let the rest of the apparatus (academia, unions, art, citizen interest groups, etc.) fend for themselves.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that any long-term opposition to power will have to have an electoral component, but as the Religious Right discovered (and also promptly forgot, to their peril) national electoral dominance is largely the endgame of anti-establishment politics. Not the first step. To make it primary invites structural decay and even worse, co-option.

    This is why I’m not particularly concerned about the Clinton-Obama wing wringing their hands over unity and going ‘b-b-but Trump’. Building a long-term engine to counter plutocracy in general, rather than just winning national elections, is worth taking a short-term bath.

    1. PKMKII

      The most promising sign I’ve seen out of all these anti-Trump movements is the large number of folks who’ve filed to run for office. Recognition that a nationally-focused strategy has starved the local and state roots, so that’s where the change needs to happen.

  2. J

    Sadly this is a familiar story playing out all across the country. I remember years ago growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, we had drills where we would hide under the desk in case of nuclear attack.

    People thought this was important to do because our area was known as the Steel Valley and although we werent as populated or as wealthy as areas like NYC, Chicago, or Los Angeles, our area manufactured the steel that was used to power our military and our industry into the richest country in the world.

    Nowadays, going back home and driving around some parts of that area is like visiting a war zone. Its depopulated, buildings and infrastructure are dilapidated and falling apart, and there are drugs and despair everywhere. Some of the areas look as if they could be improved by an intercontinental ballistic missile or two. We were so busy worrying about the Russians we let the neoliberals accomplish their goals for them.
    It did work out well for some people though, the Clintons, Bushes, Obamas, and others made quite a bit of money.

  3. cocomaan

    Welcome Toni! This article is fantastic. I wouldn’t have heard about this, or learned the meaning of the white shirts, without you being here on NC. Also had no idea about Honeywell and uranium gas, good god.

    I’m definitely interested in your book once it’s published.

      1. Toni Gilpin

        Thank you very much. I still have a ways to go with the book but will certainly let the NC crowd know when it’s available.

        1. Ulysses

          Excellent post! Many thanks! Have you heard of the strike vote just taken by Ithaca College’s new contingent faculty union?

          “Over the past two weeks, faculty from several departments across Ithaca College released letters of support, promising to not hire replacements and committing to not fill their classes if the IC Contingent Faculty Union/SEIU Local 200United does go out on strike.

          Tenured faculty member Patricia Rodriguez said: “The unionized contingent faculty at IC demonstrate to us all the courage to stand up for change and voice in a system that has them at the bottom of the pay scale, for no other reason than that is what the system is like. But they show us that it does not need to be this way, that there can be power in showing solidarity, in workers of all different ranks standing side by side, such that the ranks begin to matter less and less one day hopefully.”

          http://www.lansingstar.com/news-page/13497-ic-contingent-faculty-vote-to-authorize-strike

    1. Toni Gilpin

      I can’t speak for the clergy, but your notion that unions did nothing in the face of the foreclosure crisis is incorrect. Believing that unions “didn’t come” is consistent with what I’ve argued in the piece above: that’s what the powers that be want you to think. Here’s some info about what unions were in fact doing: “UAW Local 600 Takes Direct Action Against Tide of Motown Foreclosures,” an article from 2012; info about a 2009 union conference on the economic crisis in which the fight against evictions was front and center; a “people’s hearing” on foreclosures sponsored by the UAW in 2013; an AFL-CIO report on the foreclosure crisis from 2010; and a UE rally against Wells Fargo in 2009. That’s just a sample. And unions provide resources for their members who are fighting foreclosures, as this makes clear.

      Could they and should they have done more? Yes, I think so, and certainly some unions (as is always true) were far better on this issue than others. But was there any institution doing as much as the labor movement to draw attention to the foreclosure crisis? I don’t think so.

        1. sierra7

          Correct as far as the International Leadership.
          I suggest a good digging into the history of AIFLD, American Institute for Foreign Labor Development as a good start to see just where that leadership is still.
          It deals with the history of the US Labor Internationals cooperation with the CIA/NED and other intelligence/covert overseas operations to crush any “radical” labor emergence after WW2.
          Unfortunately promised support here in the US (Politically) if they (The Internationals) cooperated over the years labor has had to take a more and more back seat to the geo-global-objectives of “free market” capitalism as we have witnessed with the advent of the notorious trade treaties of the past 20 or so odd years.
          There is a definite “Hidden History” (“Labor’s Untold Story” https://www.amazon.com/Labors-Untold-Story-Adventure-Betrayals/dp/0916180018) to the building of the middle class/labor that is not taught in most any public schools. To keep that history dark is the objective of the leading political elites of this country.
          Therefore is it very difficult to garner support for the common labor folk when any labor dispute occurs.
          This in the longer run will not bode well for the health of the country.
          We have seen the result in the last election. Not a HC supporter, I’ve voted “3rd party” for more than 25 years an have not regretted it once.
          We are in deep, deep social trouble and this will not end well.

        2. Dave

          I learned that at my first job working in a movie theater when I was going to school in the 1970s. After several years of trying to become a manager and watching total incompetents being put in charge, I noticed the official union poster in the break room. It read, paraphrasing from memory:
          “The union encourages hiring and promoting women and minorities to managerial positions.”
          In other words, “We’ll harvest your union dues out of your paycheck, but f* you white boy.”

      1. perpetualWAR

        I failed to find any help in the unions in Seattle. NAACP refused to help. SEIU refused to help. The building trades unions refused to help. The coalition of black clergy refused to help. The Catholic services refused to help. Everywhere I went, including Occupy, there was ZERO assistance. The foreclosure victims were told be everyone to move along. That’s why now I’m sitting back and literally rageful that everyone is divesting because DAPL and has gone insane about the Muslim ban….yet these same people watched in silence while their neighbors left in the middle of the night. I will be resentful of my fellow Americans probably until my grave at the lack of action.

      1. perpetualWAR

        I literally begged for union and church support to help pass my 4 legislative bills to stop foreclosures. I went to SEIU, the building trade unions, the black clergy, the Catholic services. No one would help. I spoke and spoke and spoke and got nowhere.

    2. Toni Gilpin

      I can’t speak for the clergy, but your notion that unions did nothing in the face of the foreclosure crisis is incorrect. Believing that unions “didn’t come” is consistent with what I’ve argued in the piece above: that’s what the powers that be want you to think. Here’s some info about what unions were in fact doing: “UAW Local 600 Takes Direct Action Against Tide of Motown Foreclosures,” an article from 2012; info about a 2009 union conference on the economic crisis in which the fight against evictions was front and center; a “people’s hearing” on foreclosures sponsored by the UAW in 2013; an AFL-CIO report on the foreclosure crisis from 2010; and a UE rally against Wells Fargo in 2009. That’s just a sample. And unions provide resources for their members who are fighting foreclosures, as this makes clear.

      Could they and should they have done more? Yes, I think so, and certainly some unions (as is always true) were far better on this issue than others. But was there any institution doing as much as the labor movement to draw attention to the foreclosure crisis? I don’t think so.

    3. jrs

      If the unions are standing for wage increases, better working conditions etc. it’s enough (it’s what unions are for) even if they don’t take on everyone’s pet issues that aren’t directly related to labor issues.

      (mind you I don’t think they can just do anything unethical in pursuit of these primary goals – if they were investing union dues in foreclosure or something it might be one thing – but they don’t have to take on every cause).

      1. Toni Gilpin

        Well, see what I wrote above: foreclosures were viewed by most in the labor movement very much as their issue, first because so many union members were being affected by it, and because generally the foreclosure crisis was of course about economic justice, or lack thereof, and so unions (at least some of them) felt compelled to be involved.

        As to Eric Patton’s comment: you’ll get no quarrel from me that labor’s top leadership is (for the most part) far too bureaucratic, too tied in to management and the Democratic Party establishment, too distant from the rank and file, and way too timid. Much of the good stuff that is happening takes place at the local level, like so much of what is true politically these days, and rank and file union members often find themselves taking on their own leaders as well as the companies they are up against. But I’d still argue that the labor movement as an institution needs to be defended as the only bulwark standing against total corporate avarice. And by supporting these local struggles, like the ones in South Bend, we might help teach labor’s top leadership that these battles are worth fighting.

        1. perpetualWAR

          What you continue to claim: unions helped the foreclosure victims is exactly opposite of my experience. And not because I didn’t try to gain their support. They just refused to help at every turn.

          1. Left in Wisconsin

            You have every right to be disappointed. The problem with member organizations like unions is that they are free to make bad decisions. These are indeed dark times and we have a long way to go to dig ourselves out (mixing metaphors there).

            But unions, as imperfect as they are, are among the only institutions we have that give working people THE OPPORTUNITY to have a voice and some impact. There is no guarantee they will use that voice, strong or weak as it is, in the way(s) we want them to.

            I would argue the wrong response to that is FU and F every other union. That I think is what Gilpin is trying to say: some unions were indeed more active in trying to stem the foreclosure tide.

            That is why I hate the term “labor movement” and wish she wouldn’t use it. The fact is that unions and union members are all over the map and presuming they are part of a movement is a) wrong and b) suggests that objective #1 doesn’t need to be “movement-making,” which it absolutely needs to be.

            1. Toni Gilpin

              Fair enough about “labor movement”: it would be more correct these days to refer to “organized labor” when talking about unions in general. Labor Notes, which is both a newsletter and an organization, was founded in 1979 with this slogan: “the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement.” So there are plenty out there, especially rank-and-file activists, who second your criticism and are trying to do something about it, as I suspect you know. And you are absolutely right: unless organized labor is a member-driven “movement,” then it’s part of the problem rather than the solution.

  4. PKMKII

    Lidinsky, the daughter of a union plumber, recalled the difficulties her family had faced when her father had been on strike, and her repeated refrain – that “workers’ rights are women’s rights” and vice-versa – drew cheers.

    To expand on that, IdPol without economic populism isn’t IdPol at all. Class warfare is the primary means by which minorities, women, and LGBT are oppressed and marginalized. Without addressing the class issue, well then it’s like sending someone a “get well soon” card instead of performing the surgery they need.

    1. FluffytheObeseCat

      +100. Perfect description. In “creative class” circles today, loudly voiced adherence to “multiculturalism” etc is all about looking good to ones peers…… and jack about solidarity with the beat down people of this (or any) country.

    2. Justicia

      Agreed: identity politics w/out economic populism isn’t politics — it’s narcissism. Class warfare is the primary means by which all of us who didn’t get the secret handshake are ripped off.

      But, there are encouraging new models of economic populism that unite us:

      Anyone thinking about strategies of political resistance might take a long look at North Carolina’s Forward Together movement, which on Saturday held its eleventh annual Moral March outside the Raleigh statehouse. Organizers claimed that more than eighty thousand marchers had attended, surpassing the crowd at the 2014 march, which was then the largest civil-rights gathering in the South since the era of Selma and Birmingham.
      […]
      As Barber put it on Saturday, the movement exists “so preachers can fight for fifteen and workers can say ‘black lives matter,’ and a white woman can stand with her black sister for voting rights, and a black man can stand for a woman’s right to health care, and L.G.B.T.Q. folk can stand for religious liberty, and straight people can stand up for . . . queer people, and a Muslim imam can stand with an undocumented worker.” This litany of identities might horrify those who argue that Democrats have fallen away from common appeals, but the premise of the movement is that a universalist program—for health care, voting rights, reproductive choice, and higher wages—begins in building coalitions among people whom politics have driven apart.

      http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/north-carolinas-long-moral-march-and-its-lessons-for-the-trump-resistance?intcid=mod-latest

      1. PhilM

        Identity politics is not “narcissism.” It is a reincarnation of a few long-established, fully elaborated, completely non-psychological-buzzword-requiring ideologies, among them primarily racism and sexism, which have been disguised as acceptable and even righteous by clever use of the language of oppression. What a terrible thing that this logic and language, traditionally used by oppressors to justify more ferocious oppression, now soils the mouths of those who have reason to hate it most.

        You say, “the premise of the movement is that a universalist program—for health care, voting rights, reproductive choice, and higher wages—begins in building coalitions among people whom politics have driven apart.” Well “litany of identities” is accurate, and in its nature, that is the converse of a truly universal, egalitarian, politics. The syntax of all racist or particularist politics is, “Subject…takes xyx from…predicate.” “Subject…has more rights than…predicate.” “Subject takes precedence over object in xy and z.”

        The answer is not to switch the subject and predicate. It is to change them, so that both are “everybody.” Then everybody has to make sure that the verb in the middle is good for everybody. That leaves out “take jobs from,” “give jobs to,” “take money from,” “give money to,” and includes “protect,” “pay for healthcare of,” “educate,” and “guarantee certain inalienable rights to.” Sure those rights may change–as long as they are agreed by everybody to be for everybody. A truly “universalist program”—whatever the hell that phrase is supposed to mean—begins by outlining universal principles that apply to humanity, then persuading enough people of the rectitude and feasibility of that program to bring it about against selfish and particular interests who profit from destroying the common wealth.

        The politics that has “driven apart” the people who are in those groups, as Barber has it, does so precisely by using the language that Barber uses. Beneath it all is the presumption that individuals derive their political principles from their “identities” rather than from their humanity, upbringing, education, or socioeconomic interests. They have the luxury of doing that only when nothing else is really threatening them, and they are looking to gain something.

        So, the language of common humanity is not used much any more, because it is about giving things up, not about getting things. Today’s politics, and most politics, with only a few crucial years excepted, is about talking people into giving things to you: to you, your family, your tribe, your clan, and now finally your race, your sex, and your creed. Identity politics is the epitome of selfish particularism, and its exponents are laughably transparent in their personal ambition and their reckless disregard for the language of the common good.

          1. aab

            That is a complete misreading of what PhilM is saying. In fact, it is functionally the opposite of it.

            I respect Barber, but I agree with Phil. I think it’s going to be very difficult to scale up this approach to solidarity and leftward change because the language so strongly resembles identity politics, and I am not convinced it is functionally different. I think Phil’s point about how any use of identity in this framework reinforces its toxicity and undermines redeveloping a sense of community and communality that is vital to transforming our politics and policies is compelling.

            I realize there actually are issues specific to identity. I’m not claiming racism or sexism is meaningless or that focusing on universal benefits will eradicate them. (They won’t.) But focusing on them instead of universal issues is a trap right now.

            1. PhilM

              Wow, thank you, aab. That is exactly what I was trying to convey, but as usual, in my pompous long-form idiom. I do think brevity is the soul of wit, but I am not there, and always appreciate assistance.

        1. marym

          Not getting murdered by cops, or beaten up because of one’s religion or gender expression, or raped are universal benefits and don’t take from anyone to give to someone else. I don’t claim to know how to organize a mass movement, but your characterization of these types of issues doesn’t seem helpful.

          1. PhilM

            You’re right, it is not helpful. That is because “organizing a mass movement” is impossible. It is, as we say of schizophrenic speech, a “word salad,” a vacuous manipulative demagogic image that has no corresponding reality in beneficial humane political progress.

            That’s why my contributions don’t seem helpful to the committed revolutionaries around here, because you are constantly crying for something that is unachievable with the means you have at your disposal. It is just like “get rich by starting your own business” and “win at blackjack by counting cards” or “beat the craps tables in Vegas!” What you are urging, supporting, hoping for is provably, inevitably counter-productive to the interests you purport to cherish.

            Why should I be helpful by supporting the delusion that your futile hopes can come to any positive result; or cheer your sputtered exhortations for polarizing violence; or offer the names of unsophisticated histrionic demagogues on whom to waste your tiny political capital? That’s not my job; that’s work for the ruling classes. You had your best chance with Bernie Sanders, and I was with you all the way. Don’t blame me for your failure.

          2. marym

            Apparently I misunderstood your paragraph beginning “The answer is…” followed by a lengthy to-do list as being about doing something – together, for everyone. Now I have no idea what it was about, so maybe my statement that not getting murdered by cops, etc. are universal benefits, not a taking of something from someone is irrelevant to your purpose.

            As for the numerous accusations in your final paragraph in your reply, I don’t think I personally have ever presumed to propagate “The answer…” in those ways, or any other. At most I’ve said that if there is a path to something better, it will require that we find ways to show solidarity rather than find reasons to withhold it.

            1. PhilM

              You are right. Mea culpa. My anti-revolutionary position (not to be confused with reaction) is one generally of cautious delay of political gratification, Burke-style conservatism, Fabianism. Hereabouts my occasionally provocatively nihilistic tone, borne of another day’s failed efforts to get the rock to the top of the hill where it can rest for a moment before rolling down again, makes me a target for the justified frustration of others, and the occasional (and fully welcomed by me) Sky-netting of my more destructive and demoralizing comments.

              In re-reading our exchange, I see that I misunderstood your remark. I certainly should have excepted you, personally, from the collective “your” that directed at those who would do or encourage even unproductive action rather than remain quiescent. They are a minority on this set, as am I; we bracket the hopeful, positive people who seem to be the more pleasant majority, and who seem intuitively in line with the guidelines for civic behavior, and civil communication, that Lambert propounds. I wish I had Mencken’s manuscripts, to see how much vitriol he excised before finally sending in the final product, which was pretty stinging. Johnson, my other idol, almost never could be bothered even to read his own work, much less rewrite an essay. Incredible.

  5. Altandmain

    I don’t think that the Clinton-Obama Democrats understand. They don’t have the interests of the bottom 90% or so at heart. Either that or they are in the top 10% and don’t care about the rest of us.

    I’m not too worried either about the “Party Unity” crap. What they are really saying is that people should be subservient to a pro-Wall Street, pro-war platform that the Democratic Establishment espouses. That is totally unacceptable and got the world into the current disaster.

    Ultimately there are large parts of the Democratic base, unlike the GOP that naively believes that the GOP = evil and Democrats = good. In reality both parties serve the very rich.

    For that reason, I’m not sorry to see the Clintons or other corporate Democrats lose.

    1. Toni Gilpin

      The scabs are hired and brought in by Strom Engineering, which recruits from outside the area where a strike or lockout is going on, so as to prevent them from having any contact with the workers or others in the community who might not be so nice to them. They are put up outside South Bend somewhere — maybe in motels — and their housing is paid for. Here is how Strom describes its services:

      “If your business is facing a potential labor disruption, we can help you minimize the possible repercussions. Strom offers a five-phase approach for providing strike replacement staffing during a labor disruption situation: assessments, recruiting, pre-deployment, deployment, and disbandment. When you utilize our comprehensive industrial strike staffing services, we will determine your business’s unique needs, locate, accommodate, and train qualified workers, secure safe transportation across picket lines, and follow the appropriate protocol for strike staffing disbandment after a new labor contract has been approved.”

      Read “strike staffing disbandment” as discarding the temporary workers like yesterday’s news. But of course most of the workers who take these scab jobs (as has always been the case) are on the lowest rung in the economy: once that meant that industries in the north, like the meatpackers in Chicago, recruited black workers from the south to break strikes. Now it often means immigrants. Which of course explains some of the racism that infects the working class, and the resentment that union workers may already have toward immigrant labor — though they are focusing on the wrong target. The real culprits here are the David Cotes of the world, who — as Jay Gould once said — are always looking to hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.

  6. DJG

    Thanks, Toni. This article also highlights the long traditions of radicalism throughout the Great Lakes States. Indiana is the most conservative of the six, and we see here what is happening, especially in the industrialized northern tier that runs from Fort Wayne to Gary.

    Every time I read some earnest article (or, maybe, not so earnest) about flyover country or the conservative heartland, I am reminded of how poor so much analysis is these days.

    This portrait of South Bend is a long way from the glow that Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to emit. And I noticed his absence from the account. (But he does have Frank Bruni’s endorsement!) So where are the Democrats when it comes to lockouts?

    1. Toni Gilpin

      Yes, I decided not to get too deep into the politics in South Bend, as the piece was getting too long, but Mayor Pete, who is off running for DNC chair at the moment, has been supportive to the locked-out workers and has joined them on the picket line, though there is certainly sentiment that he could do much more to put pressure on Honeywell. Similarly, Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly has been on the picket line; again, he could probably do more but that’s better than many politicians might do, even Democrats, especially those in red states like Indiana (and Donnelly has received campaign contributions from Honeywell, so I guess that makes his support for the workers all the more notable.) And of course President Obama’s close relationship with Cote certainly helps explain why some UAW members went for Trump; Obama was in South Bend last summer but — unlike Mayor Pete or Senator Donnelly — he did not visit with the locked-out workers.

      But in terms of venality, the Republicans are worse. Mike Pence, while still Governor of Indiana, personally intervened to prevent the Honeywell workers from collecting unemployment benefits, which, since they were locked out, they were by law entitled to. The UAW top leadership should have used that issue to beat the Trump/Pence ticket over the head with, but for whatever reason chose not to: big mistake.

  7. chuck roast

    Thank you Toni.
    Any mention of the Flint Sit-down Strike brightens my day.
    Where and to whom do I send the strike-relief check?

    1. Toni Gilpin

      Thanks, and thanks for asking! Donations may be sent to: UAW Local 9 Strike Fund, 740 S Michigan St, South Bend, IN 46601. Tell them you read about them on Naked Capitalism!

  8. aletheia33

    welcome, toni, and thank you for joining us. and thank you, yves, for hosting toni here. once again, i feel honored by and grateful to the brilliant, clarifying, committed writers who offer their work and engage with the audience on this site, so that we all may contribute more effectively to the common good.

  9. dbk

    Thank you, thank you, this is a great piece. Have you written other, similar essays we could access online?

    As a person who grew up in the Rust Belt (downstate Illinois) in a factory town that’s been dying off for about thirty years now, I become very upset by East and West Coast dismissals of the workers of flyover land.

    In a sense, this is what the DNC Chair race is about – can the Democrats face up to inequity and inequality among a large share of their longtime base, or will they turn their backs and vote for business as usual? Whatever the actual importance of the DNC Chair position, it’s taking on tremendous symbolic significance.

    In other news:
    The Iowa legislature gutted its public service workers’ unions yesterday. Essentially, all rights except negotiation of base pay were lost at one fell swoop. Ten days from introduction of the bill to passage – masterfully planned and executed.

    http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/16/amid-marathon-debate-iowa-legislature-barrels-towards-passage-collective-bargaining-bill/97984338/

    1. Toni Gilpin

      Such a nice reply — thank you and I would be curious to know where in downstate IL you grew up. Of course there are a lot of dying factory towns in the state.

      I haven’t done any other writing exactly like this that you can find online — I did a piece recently about Trump’s Carrier ploy that (which was posted here) but that’s not exactly what you have in mind, I know. I hope to write some more along the lines of what I’ve done here in the future.

      And yes, Iowa — sigh. Iowa once had extremely militant unions, in the Quad Cities for instance. To cross a picket line in that territory back in the 1940s and ’50s was life-endangering behavior. Breaks my heart to see what has happened there now.

      1. dbk

        I’m from Peoria, home of world-champion-offshore-behemoth Caterpillar. They just announced they’re moving corporate to Chicago and nobody has any illusions the 12,000 production jobs left (out of 50,000 when I was growing up) will remain long. The city is reeling.

        1. Toni Gilpin

          Oh, yes Caterpillar — originally organized by the Farm Equipment Workers, the left-wing union I’m writing about, and there is a tangled and painful history there, bound up in the self-destructive red-baiting practices of the Cold War labor movement (of which the UAW was a principal instigator). But that was then. More recently Doug Oberhelman, the just-departed CEO of Cat (and chairman of the National Association of Manufacturers), as I’m sure you know too well, was a union-buster of the first order and just a really bad guy — deceitful, arrogant, and like Cote ridiculously overpaid. Also Oberhelman is a major promoter of the “skills gap” fallacy, as the main reason we have unemployment and low wages, as opposed to the possibility that those things exist because companies like Cat eliminate jobs while CEOs rake in the bonuses. Poor Peoria. That plant was something to see in its heyday.

          1. dbk

            Fascinating.

            Yeah, I kept telling friends and relatives that Oberhelman was out to break the back of the union, and nobody wanted to hear it back then. Jim Umpleby, the new CEO, is from Indiana near Chicago and the local rumor is that he and the 300 or so top managers he’s taking with him don’t like living in a small town/snark. There’s a certain Schadenfreude associated with the idea of 300 or so million+-dollar properties in zip code 61615 sitting on the market for a few years. The company gave no prior notice they were leaving, and Umpleby broke the news on the day before the Mayor was slated to give his annual State of the City address – he managed to destroy a 92-year-old relationship in about 5 minutes. Pretty shocking, really.

            (Note: I was a grad student at YGS in the mid-late seventies. The atmosphere was already so toxic you could, well, cut it with a knife.)

            1. Toni Gilpin

              Also Oberhelman — who would place near the top of that list we should all be maintaining of “CEOs with the Most Jaw-Dropping Chutzpah” (it’s a long list, to be sure, and requires regular updating) — has been one of most adept at raking in corporate subsidies from various cities and states while simultaneously whining that his own taxes are too high. He extorted millions from (among others) the state of Illinois, contributing to our budget crisis, but instead of being called out for that he was royally feted by politicians at all levels and in both parties (just as Cote has been). But I suppose one of Oberhelman’s few saving graces was his continued loyalty to Peoria, though if he really cared about the town he could have insisted that his successor stay there too.

              Yale, at least, can’t threaten to move, one of the factors that empowers workers there (though with online education that’s not as true for institutions that rely less on the status of their physical campus). I still hum “boola boola where’s the moolah?”, one of my favorite Yale picket line chants, to myself from time to time.

              1. dbk

                Oberhelman, who spent 40 years with the company, was a native of Peoria; his wife, also a native Peorian, is the local real estate development mogul, so she probably didn’t want to leave.

                Umpleby, though an internal hire, is not from the city, worked for a number of years for Solar Turbines (San Diego) and when he worked for Cat proper he spent a fair amount of time abroad overseeing its far-flung offshoring operations. He thus had no ties to the city either by birth or through career postings.

                Very much looking forward to the book, btw.

  10. Sluggeaux

    This is a wonderful piece about a shocking problem — lyrically written and grounded in history and the social relations of an important industrial community. The Red Army would never have defeated the Nazis without the hundreds of thousands of stout Studebaker trucks built by South Bend workers — but their thanks were pink-slips! Obama’s cozy relations with a greed-head lock-out artist like Cote are largely why so few turned out for the New Democrats last November.

    Honeywell and Cote are examples of monopoly crony capitalism at its worst. Our government awards rich contracts to companies engaging in lock-outs, while our donations to Local 9’s strike fund aren’t considered tax deductible charitable contributions!

    1. JerryDenim

      See comment by Toni Gilpin (author) above:

      “Thanks, and thanks for asking! Donations may be sent to: UAW Local 9 Strike Fund, 740 S Michigan St, South Bend, IN 46601. Tell them you read about them on Naked Capitalism!”

  11. JerryDenim

    “April Lidinsky, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the local branch of Indiana University, was also an invited speaker. She was the force behind the Women’s March in South Bend which she organized, she said, because she knew women there could not afford a trip to Washington. Lidinsky, the daughter of a union plumber, recalled the difficulties her family had faced when her father had been on strike, and her repeated refrain – that “workers’ rights are women’s rights” and vice-versa – drew cheers.”

    Wow, quite a convergence of politics going on in South Bend. A Women’s Studies professors addressing a diverse, male-dominaed crowd of union workers who are raising money for American workers on strike and (non-union ?) Colombian autoworkers who have been injured and mistreated- exceptional! This group sounds diverse, politically astute, globally aware and empathetic. Powerful stuff. If the rest of America can get with the program and the awareness these midwestern UAW workers are charting I think we just might be able to turn things around.

    Thanks for sharing this encouraging account Toni and Yves!

    1. Toni Gilpin

      Indeed — I think this is “intersectionality” we can all endorse. All credit has to go to the local union leaders, both in South Bend and from Chicago and Detroit, who organized this rally. But I think there is a growing desire (propelled by necessity) within labor’s rank and file to build those broader coalitions. Let’s hope their energy and good organizing sense percolates up to the top UAW leadership: as you say that would go a long way toward turning things around.

  12. tommy strange

    What a great article!!!! Thanks to NC for branching out. For 25 years I’ve read labor notes, mike davis, and the usual good anarchists writers, but I always love to read real stuff within, that know their facts, and have a heart too. Use to be IWW, gonna sign up again, not that that matters much, but you know………..

  13. akaPaul LaFargue

    Thank you Toni Gilpin for this excellent reportage. Do you know Sarah Smarsh
    @Sarah_Smarsh ? She reports from Kansas. I wish there was a site that chronicled labor-related stories from the Heartland.

  14. EyeRound

    Reading this account makes me hope that narrative-as-we-know-it is dead. Gilpin seems blissfully unaware of her own class-biases, but her middle-class-point-of-view pervades this writing and, in the end, masks over the real central issues even as it presents those issues. (The American middle class is nothing if not blind to itself.)
    Gilpin’s repeated use of the phrase “just as good as” to describe workers’ attitudes toward themselves, is particularly grating: She twice uses the phrase to say that the meaning of the union is to show that workers are “just as good as” owners. What legitimates the need for such a comparison? If the society were not dominated by money-based class-distinctions, who would ever ask whether a worker were “just as good as” an owner? To question whether a Honeywell worker is “just as good” as a Honeywell owner–regardless of whether the questioner is a writer or a union member–is to replicate the money-based class identities that are hamstringing our current political thinking. Unions today have little to defend beyond money, the struggle for more money. That’s how the corporate owners see them, and sadly they’re right, labor is equal to “cost.” But how has it come about that labor, or unions, share this view of themselves with the owners’ view of them? Gilpin’s account purports to show us how liberal labor unions are in fact, and I don’t doubt what she is saying. But her narrative indicates, apparently unbeknownst to her, that labor ought not to be liberal, it ought to be radical. Otherwise labor shares too much with the middle class, and a critical reader of Gilpin’s essay is going to say “Yeah, these are the people who voted for Trump. And before that they voted for Pence.”
    A strike lockout does not happen on condition of money alone, but on condition of ownership. Workers strike for more money, owners enact lockouts by virtue of owning the production/corporation. Their wealth is locked into ownership rights.
    The great Homestead strike, at the dawn of industrial unionization in this country, was about ownership: Who owns the products of labor–workers or corporate wonks? We seem to question ownership no longer, whether we are union members or writers. Perhaps it is time that we took up this question again.
    In the meantime Gilpin, along with many others, seems to believe that “democracy” is a matter of how the money runs. Unequal distribution of wealth does not mean that money is not running just fine.

  15. Toni Gilpin

    Well, I disagree with most of what you’ve said here, or actually think that you have simply misread what I wrote, but I’ll just chose one point to respond to. You say that “unions today have little to defend beyond money,” and I know that’s what many people who are not in unions think, and it is true that in terms of its own p.r. labor’s top leadership these days emphasizes better wages as what unions are mostly about. But in fact that displays a lack of understanding of what unions do for workers: much of what they provide has little to do with money, and I’d argue it may be those non-monetary things that matter the most. Without unions, employees are continually subject to arbitrary treatment on the job, whether we’re talking about how work is done, the speed at which it must be performed, who will perform particular jobs, or who gets fired or promoted. Unions interject some semblance of democracy and fairness into the workplace. Time after time, when workers form unions, what drives them to join is not the promise of higher pay. What motivates them more is the blatant unfairness that they’re forced to accept on a regular basis at work. In the ’30s, many young workers who joined the CIO often said they did so after they’d witnessed older workers, who’d been with their companies for decades, fired without apology during the Depression. In other words, they joined a union because of the cruelty they’d seen employers subject other workers to. Regardless of the sorry state that organized labor is in today, that much is still true — unions provide workers with some mechanisms to enforce fair treatment, dignity and respect on the job.

    The Honeywell lockout is a case in point, as right now the biggest sticking point is over seniority, and the right for the company to re-assign workers to jobs without regard to seniority and without the union’s ability to object to those transfers. It’s actually not about money at all, as is often the case with labor disputes: it’s about power. Honeywell wants complete control over how work is done and who will do it. The union is standing in its way.

    And to your larger point I would just say that class relations are dependent on the moneyed class making the working class internalize, to a greater or lesser degree, a sense of inferiority. Once that is shattered all hell can break lose.

    And since I’m writing about the history of a pretty radical union I will concur with you on this: workers would be better off if their unions were less liberal and more radical instead.

    1. EyeRound

      I’m not surprised that you disagree. I think you miss my major points, but perhaps I wasn’t very clear. The precondition for lockout is ownership. When they lock you out, you find out that the laws are written to protect property, not workers. The “power” that you name turns out to be the police force. Ownership used to be an issue contested by workers, but in the last 100 + years the owning class has succeeded in obscuring that issue and replacing it with the issue of money alone, without overt regard to or acknowledgement of the connections between ownership and wealth. Along the way, sentimental narratives of poor folks’ sufferings have flourished, further masking critical issues.

      That unions have also helped to improve working conditions is clear, as you say. But labor in this country has never constituted the conditions under which work is executed–owners do that, occasionally dropping crumbs to the workforce.

      I wouldn’t be able to say why workers joined unions, but even in light of what you say–namely that without unions, owners would exact even more sacrifices from workers–underlines my point that unions are there because of a divide between labor and owners. That divide you have expressed in terms of money, not in terms of law, property, and what it means to produce commodities in a capitalist world.

      What happened to the critique of private property that came to expression in the labor movements of the 19th century?

      1. JTFaraday

        I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, but I would agree with the general tenor of your comment to the extent that the labor left is indeed in the business of reifying The Working Class, which is not really a desirable human condition.

        There certainly could be more “radical” political positions than this. Radical in the sense of “getting to the root of.”

        Practical? I don’t know, maybe not.

        1. EyeRound

          Yes to your definition of “radical” that brings forth both the mathematical and the philosophical/political senses of the term.

          It would indeed seem to be very “impractical” to ask today’s striking Honeywell workers to shift their cause and begin a radical challenge to ownership. (Though Naomi Klein has written about workers in Argentina attempting just this conversion, with limited success.) My question, though, is not so much “Why are they striking?” as “What’s in their heads?” “How are they thinking?”

          Put another way, how we FEEL is not a very good driver of change, since feelings are constituted by cultures, not by individuals, but how we THINK is what TPTB have always feared most. Thought is what’s radical, which is why we have to attend to how we understand/think/criticize/analyze, and so on. Actions work best that are based on good thinking. Forget feelings. If our brains are left fallow and untrained by the overwhelming power of the cultures of money, then it’s time that condition was remedied.

          We also have to attend to the longstanding relation between thinking and language. Thinking that is no more than “liberal”, is indeed very practical. Liberal, sentimental writing that lacks a dialectical basis merely services the status quo, which I think is also your point.

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