What is your vision of a 1970s union leader? Lane Kirkland and his lame leadership of the AFL-CIO? Jimmy Hoffa? A bunch of old men in suits?
One could hardly blame you if you had that in your mind. Every narrative tells us unions were moribund and bloated by the 70s. They all sold out or cared nothing but getting a little more in the pension plan for their members. They were ripe to be crushed by Republicans in the 80s, unwilling to put up a fight.
There is some truth to this to be sure, but it’s also a stereotype. There were some unions ready to throw major punches at the Republicans. And they provide some interesting lessons.
I’ve spent the last 3 weeks researching in the archives of the International Woodworkers of America for my book. It has been a very interesting time. I will be writing a series of posts over the next week or so on my impressions of this union, and unionism in general, based upon my time exploring this largely forgotten organization in depth.
I’ll start with this: whatever your idea of a 70s union leader is, it’s not IWA president Keith Johnson. Below is a small chunk from his address to the Thirty-First Constitutional Convention of the IWA in 1979. Keep in mind that this speech is not for the general public, but for the union leaders and the elected representatives of the locals attending the convention. So he didn’t necessarily have a strong reason to sugarcoat anything. Anyway, here is a bit from his talk:
“Let’s face it, profit is money and money is capital and people who control capital are capitalists.
Capitalists do not care if workers are crippled by unsafe plant environments.
Capitalists do not care if workers are thrown out of their jobs by log exports or antiquated equipment.
Capitalists do not care if the parents of workers must rot with untreated disease, or the children of workers die at birth.
Capitalists do not care if major groups of citizens are discriminated against at work or in the community.
Capitalists certainly do not care if union organizers are run out of town.
These are harsh words but they are conclusions compelled by the facts.”
Wait, didn’t the CIO kick all this crazy radical stuff out in the 50s? Well, yes, but some of the unions retained their radical tinge and in the 70s it resurfaced. The IWA is one of those unions. Talk about some honest words about the evil of capitalism. And it wasn’t just in 1979. Here’s a snippet from the 1982 convention:
“Who would have believed that the United States would again plunge into reckless adventurism in the Caribbean to protect the imperialist capitalists that have exploited those peoples for a century, a few short years after similar escapades in southeast Asia proved disastrous. Yet such an effort is escalating today, and is part and parcel of the world war by the capitalists against the people. I honestly do not know which is worse: the militarism of Reagan’s Secretary of State Haig or the gutlessness of Trudeau’s Secretary of State MacGuigan in this sorry spectacle.”
The IWA had Canadian locals, which explains the slam on Trudeau’s administration. But Johnson’s words would have hardly been out of place at a radical leftist convention. Now, the IWA did not necessarily work with hard-core leftist groups in these years, for reasons both cultural and structural. And it was getting absolutely destroyed by the timber industry collapsing around it. Which is why you’ve probably never heard of it. But here was a union leader ready to go 1930s-style at the conservatives. Keith Johnson should remind us both that our stereotypes of union leaders may in fact be caricatures and that unions, even as late as the 1980s, told truth to power in ways we can learn from today.
I don’t suppose Keith Johnson’s rhetoric would be very popular with the neoliberals and Democratic centrists of the world in 2012. But he stood up for working-class people, and not just white dudes either. He placed his union at the forefront of labor’s push for gender equality and affirmative action in the workplace. As one example, he ordered the use of gender specific language in union publications to end. And his words speak a lot of truth today. I’m actually not sure if Johnson is still alive today; I haven’t yet been able to find that out. He’d be pretty dang old if so. But he speaks through the 30 years to the Occupy generation. There’s so much we can learn from past union leaders, even the relatively recent past. Unions like the IWA may have had their issues, but they challenged capitalists to their faces. And we are less for not having them around today.