The Steelworkers & Me
Steve Pitelli and Mark Kruger have inspired me to relate one of my own experiences with protests. The campaign I describe below represents the series of protests in which I participated most actively.
In 1997, the steelworkers in Community went on strike. In 1999, the dispute was still on. Representatives from the steelworkers union visited the University of Cibola at Flagship City, where I was an MA student in history. At the urging of a fellow grad student who was also a labor organizer, I attended the union reps’ meeting.
The steelworkers explained their grievances. The company was trying to break the union. Its safety record was abysmal. One worker died on the job because a supervisor refused to allow him to take his heart medicine. As far as I know, that story was true. And according to one account, also supplied by the union, the company had a much higher than average accident rate.
The steel company weathered the strike in part because a consortium of banks extended it credit. The leader of that consortium was NWB (a name I made up). The steelworkers urged us to join them in a campaign to boycott that bank.
I played an active role in the campaign. I attended planning meetings. I made signs. I may have done some phone banking. On several Fridays, I and one or two like-minded persons stood outside the bank’s branch in Flagship City. We passed out flyers to “educate” customers on what their bank was doing and urged them to stop patronizing it.
I also helped organize a demonstration. 1 We carried the signs. We marched outside NWB. We chanted “si se puede,” “union busting is disgusting,” and “the people, united, will never be divided.” Other protests staged at branches throughout the state. A very large amount of money was reported withdrawn by bank customers. 2
I know it’s a tired cliche, but “I felt a part of something bigger than myself.” The campaign was an emotional, bonding type of experience. I became friends (not close friends, but friends) with the three steelworkers who helped organize the events. “Justice” was on our side. We battled for the good and for what was right.
Complication #1: The narrative was too convenient
We chose an overly simplistic way of talking about the labor conflict. We were fighting against a big, evil corporation and a big, evil bank, all the while hoping (and finding) that the facts would reveal big, evil deeds. Not that some facts didn’t support our portrayal of the steel company. The local NLRB had ruled the company in violation of labor laws, for example. But it all felt too simplistic, almost as if we would have had to invent the facts if they didn’t fit our story
And we portrayed the people on whose behalf we fought as completely innocent, almost ennobled by the fact of their oppression. We didn’t decide to do that, but it seemed to just happen. And it’s not as if they were bad people. I’m sure most of them were decent, hardworking people now in a very distressing situation. But they were also, now, stock characters in a morality play instead of humans with their own faults.
Complication #2: The anti-boycott proviso
We passed out flyers that urged people to boycott NWB bank and we personally spoke with customers to urge them to boycott. Yet a proviso at the bottom of each flyer stated we weren’t doing exactly that. I forget the working, but it was something like “This flyer is for informational purposes. The AFL-CIO does not endorse sympathetic boycotts or strikes.” I understand the proviso was probably just a legal hoop we had to jump through to minimize our liability under applicable labor laws. 3 But it felt dishonest to me to pass out flyers whose fine print claimed we weren’t doing that which we most definitely were.
Complication #3: Bank employees
I fear some of the protesters were rude to the tellers and other employees. To be clear, I was busy outside the bank, demonstrating, so I didn’t witness this personally. But the people who went in to withdraw their money were, I heard, sometimes very vocal. They spoke in loud voices to advertise that they were closing their accounts in protest. I’m sure the protesters believed they were being civil, but I strongly suspect some of their actions didn’t translate that way. As a former customer service person (and a former bank teller), I knew and know how it feels to be yelled at by customers, even when the customer has a good reason to be upset.
Complication #4: Bank customers
We probably intimidated some customers. We were mostly polite, but my labor organizer friend taught us to be aggressive. We were to state firmly, to all people about to enter the bank, “we’re asking people to boycott NWB” and place the flyer in front of them so that they’d have to actually refuse to take it.
I guess that’s how it’s done. Maybe it even works. But it seemed overly aggressive to me. One older lady, obviously a little frightened by my friend and me when we stood outside the entrance, stated almost plaintively “I just want to go to the bank” as she walked by us. I felt like a jerk. And speaking for myself, my mind is rarely (though not never) changed by people who engage in such tactics.
Complication #5: The replacement workers
Replacement workers ( I refuse to use the word “scab”) “steal” jobs that “belong” to others. In a sense, I guess they do. But it seems to me that most replacement workers are in very marginal positions themselves. I also suspect that many, maybe most of them would have had a hard time getting a job while the shop was unionized. They might have a hard time staying on if the union had won, though I understand companies usually try to keep such replacement workers. On the other hand, any honest reckoning needs to note that replacement workers seem to have suffered a lot of on the job injuries, so in a sense, the union was trying to protect them, too.
What is to be done?
I don’t know the outcome of the strike. As of 2002, it was still going on. When a strike lasts that long it’s probably a good bet that the union loses even if it wins. The cause was probably already doomed by the time of our boycott campaign.
I’m inclined to say that activists would do well to heed the kinds of “complications” I note above. Too many activists with whom I’ve spoken too often ignore or dismiss many legitimate concerns. They end up discouraging people from listening. Or they take people who may be philosophically opposed to the cause but who are also willing to live and let live and make them into diehard opponents.
But I shouldn’t put it all on activists. It’s not as if the sample of activists I’ve spoken with is large enough for me to know how pervasive that attitude is.
And most of what I call “complications” simply illustrates that everything we do has second-order consequences. We have to work with the tools we have, not the tools we want. We sometimes have to oversimplify and cast a wide net. We sometimes have to equivocate or lie. The ends don’t justify all means, but they justify some means or else we wouldn’t have to have means. And I freely accept “complications,” and worse ones, when I do things for my own self interest or convenience.
What I write in this OP will brand me as the typical affluent neo-liberal who lacks imagination for anything better than the status quo. I plead guilty. Other than a few tweaks and fixes, I have only a hazy sense of what should be done and a hazier sense of how to do it.
My current material comfort allows me to ignore the needs of others. My attitude is probably not “Fish You, I Got Mine.” But it approaches “Good Luck, I Got Mine.” While that puts me in the company of a good number of liberals, I cannot tu quoque my way out of criticism. My actions and attitudes are on me and no one else. I have the means and the ability to do better. Whether I will or not is another matter.