Stephen Lerner proposes a good strategy. But it will have to be implemented from the bottom up.

The new AFL-CIO leadership advocates the very non-adversarial approach that Lerner deplores. Lerner attacks the idea that “in a competitive international economy, workers need to cooperate in insuring the competitiveness of their firms.” But John Sweeney recently told the National Press Club that “we can no longer afford the luxury of pretending that productivity, quality and competitiveness are not our business.”1

Sweeney’s disinclination to struggle is evident in his acts as well as in his words. To quote the Village Voice, “So far the New Voice leadership’s record has given reason to wonder when the fighting is going to start.”Catastrophe at Caterpillar was followed by disaster at Staley. Nor has the “new” AFL-CIO shown any inclination to return to the tactics that showed such promise in the Detroit newspaper strike last fall: mass picketing in defiance of an injunction at the plant where the papers are produced. Yet these are precisely the tactics that Lerner advocates and would have us believe that Sweeney champions.

“Reviving Unions” therefore misleads in suggesting that “the AFL-CIO can be the moral, strategic, and logistical center” of a new strategy based on mass direct action outside the law.

Fortunately, the leadership of national union bureaucracies is not required for such a campaign. Lerner misunderstands the history of the 1930s. He states that “no major industry was organized one firm at a time.” Actually, all major industries were organized one firm at a time. In auto, GM recognized the UAW in 1937 but Ford did likewise only in 1941. In steel, U.S. Steel signed a contract with the SWOC in 1937, but Little Steel companies did not do so until years later, one firm at a time.

It was plant-by-plant direct action and civil disobedience all over the country in 1933-1937 that brought about union recognition. There were successful local general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, in which workers for one company were helped by workers for other companies in the same town. There was a national textile strike, prompted by local action from below. Local direct action continued into the early CIO years. John Sargent, first president of the 18,000 member SWOC local at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, recalls that “there were no [outside] organizers at Inland Steel. . . . The union organizers were essentially workers in the mill who were so disgusted with their conditions and so ready for a change that they took the union into their own hands.” Without a collective bargaining agreement, workers at Inland Steel achieved through direct action on the shop floor “agreements on working conditions and wages . . . that were better by far than what we do have today in the mill.”3

Thus a strategy of direct action and civil disobedience can be successfully driven from below. The Dayton strike offers a contemporary paradigm. There, 3,000 workers in one locality shut down 26 assembly plants of the world’s largest corporation, causing more than 175,000 workers to be laid off. This is exactly how General Motors was first organized. Sadly, the immense leverage achieved by the Dayton strikers was thrown away by one of those national union bureaucracies on whom Lerner would have us rely, so that no progress was made in ending contracting-out. We can do better next time, working not through the national AFL-CIO, but with rank-and-file workers in local unions and on the shop floor.

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review