1 May 2008 Edition
Interview : US trade union activist and now SIPTU organiser Jim Grogan
A working-class hero is something to be
A WORKING-CLASS HERO is something to be. Songs dedicated to working-class heroes have been prolific over the last decade, and for good reason. In the United States, songs were often used to venerate men and women who took up the labour struggle in what was often a dangerous climate. From the Haymarket Martyrs, commemorated at May Day, to Joe Hill, being in a union in America has often been an unsafe place to be.
Jim Grogan, a SIPTU organiser, started out his union career in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACTWU) in the deep south of America. Originally from New Jersey, Grogan was a member of the US Army who became involved in the anti-war movement in 1992. From there he entered the ACTWU.
One of America’s historic industrial conflicts prior to the First World War occurred in 1912 in the textile mills of Massachusetts. It was led by the Industrial Workers of the World and started when the mill owners coldly and without prior notice cut pay rates by a 3.5 per cent. The move produced predictable results: a strike of 50,000 textile workers, arrests, fiery statements by the IWW leaders, militia attacks on peaceful meetings, and arrests.
The hostility to unions in America at the turn of the last century is not much different to that felt today by government and business. Grogan’s first job in the ACTWU was to get jobs in mills and attempt to unionise workers from within.
“Folks would be scared to organise,” Grogan says. “One of our largest campaigns to unionise was at Fieldcrest Cannon in the mid 1990s. There were 5,000 people working there. When you walked into the factory you could still see the old machine gun turrets on the sides of the gates.”
Those guns would have been used as threats against striking workers.
The Fieldcrest campaign was a success for Grogan because, ultimately, a union was founded. In the long run, though, the factory was closed down.
The fear of being in a union in America is complicated but, when explained, puts the need for the type of work Jim Grogan was engaged in into context.
Following the textile mills strike in 1912, the American Congress, at the urging of the American Federation of Labour, created a separate US Department of Labour with a legislative mandate to protect and extend the rights of wage earners. Of crucial importance, the Clayton Act of 1914 made explicit the legal concept that “the labour of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce”. Clayton allowed legalised strikes, boycotts and peaceful picketing, and dramatically limited the use of injunctions in labour disputes.
But success for unions was short-lived.
The post-First World War depression brought wages down sharply and caused major erosion of union membership (a loss of about a million members) in the years from 1920 to 1923. The difficulties were multiplied by the decision of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other anti-union ‘open shop’ groups to wipe out or seriously reduce the status of American unions.
A fear of ‘Bolsheviks’ was nurtured. As early as 1913, President John Kirby of the NAM had decided the trade union movement was “an unAmerican, illegal and infamous conspiracy”. Strike-breaking, blacklisting and vigilanteism became acceptable aspects of this new and spurious brand of patriotism. The ‘yellow dog contract’, which workers had to sign in order to get a job, bound them never to join a union (Ryanair springs to mind).
For a period a group called the Committee for Industrial Organisation carried on the effort of industrial unionism and in 1955 it merged with AFL, a former rival. The unions placed a new priority on organising workers in areas, industries and plants where no effective system of labour representation yet existed.
For the past 40 years, however, there has been a steady decline in both union membership and influence in America. Employers have strived to keep their businesses union-free. Some have been active in their opposition and have even hired consultants to devise legal strategies to combat unions. Other employers put workers on the management team by appointing them to the board of directors or establishing profit-sharing plans to reward employees.
Over the years, American unions have attempted to fight back against these regressive tactics but Grogan says that intimidation is still there.
“To organise a union you have to have an election,” he says. “Workers sign cards of interest and the election takes place two months later to establish the union, but in those two months you’ll see people getting fired, the Immigration Department being brought in, and so on. Eventually we decided to get people to strike before they were picked off by employers.”
Grogan says American unions are much larger in terms of size, than what we are used to, but they have far less significance on the national stage. However, for all their disadvantages, they have learned over the years to apply more militant tactics, and in fact have revisited many of the strategies that worked for their union ancestors.
These strategies have become more important in recent years as opposition to unions has become more violent.
“In 2000, we had the New York laundry strikes where 5,000 workers were asking for union recognition,” Grogan says. “Police on horseback were called in to break up the picket line and people were arrested and in many cases deported.”
Grogan says the union learned that just picketing was a difficult way to win the argument, particularly as bosses had no problem running in scab labour.
“We lined up other ways to put pressure on them – we went after the money,” he says. The union began appealing to customers and unionised suppliers of companies they were picketing.
“When we had the grocery strikes in 2005-2007, we appealed to the customers. They knew that the strikes weren’t just about pay increases – they were about workers losing their health care packages. People did not go into groceries during the strikes so the industry lost $1.2 billion. Then it had to listen.”
According to Grogan, progress for unions has been made more difficult because of the current American administration.
“After September 11 it became illegal for most workers to be in unions. If you worked in an airport, you couldn’t be in a union for national security reasons. If you worked in the docks, you couldn’t be in a union for national security reasons. If you worked in transportation – the list goes on. When the subway workers in New York attempted to strike two years ago, they threw the union leader in jail.”
Grogan is now a SIPTU organiser as part of the plan by his current American union, UNITE HERE, to globally build the labour struggle.
“It occurred to us some time ago that capitalists organise globally. With the growth of international finance and multinationals, it’s only natural, and necessary that labour begins to organise globally. SIPTU is supportive of that and so I came here to work. Our ultimate goal is to get to a point where we’re planning campaigns in multiple nations against multinationals. The capitalists are organised and we have to be too.”
A working-class hero is indeed something to be.