A life in organizing, an interview with Stewart Acuff

Ever since Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker survived the labor-led campaign to recall him there has been a deluge of articles and soothsaying about the “decline of unions.” The usual right-wing suspects can barely suppress their relief. Somewhat surprising to me, they have been strangely tempered compared with my expectations — no doubt struck with terror at the memory of the tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers who occupied the capital and recalled two state senators in protest against the cruel and ugly attacks by Republicans on public services. The old Wobbly slogan “When the working people sneeze in unison-the temples of Wall Street tremble” still holds.

Liberal and mainstream pundits (not born with a silver spoon) appeared to heave a regretful but unsurprised sigh, with only a nervous recollection that the labor movement made it possible for their parents and grandparents to give them the education, and culture, required to publish and pontificate. 

Then there was a new inflammation of the left-wing anti-unionism, with screeds on the “errors” of labor leadership erupting across the blogosphere. For the latter, promoting “civil wars in labor” is the platform of “principle”. The famed parable of the ship employed to refute Libertarian economics applies perfectly to this trend

“The owner of a ship noticed that his ship was filling with water. He knew, or should have known, there were many possible causes: leaks in the hull, the bilge pump being broken, waves washing over, condensation. He heard the bilge pump running too slow, he saw water from waves pouring in the open hatches, but what concerned him most of all — he smelled urine in the hold! Repulsed, he ordered the crew to the fore deck and then gave them a lengthy, stern harangue on hygienic use of the head. 

“While he was lecturing the crew, his ship sank due to a combination of causes: large, unobserved leaks in the hull, a bilge pump that was running but not pumping correctly, and condensation that had shorted out warning circuitry.” 

Enter Stewart Acuff, former national AFL-CIO organizing director and the most successful organizer in recent labor history. His call into my radio program in West Virginia was like a dose of elixir to a man walking a desert and about to just sit down amidst the rattlesnakes and hand over his last canteen to another thirsty stranger with an outstretched hand. “You take the water, ” the man says. “I can’t make it. You can make it through without me…” No,” says the stranger. “We’re going to make it out of here-together.”

Acuff is a fellow who can turn the old Merle Haggard Appalachian tune “All my friends are going to be strangers” on its head-“All those strangers, are my friends.”

A key voice in the design of the Employee Free Choice Act, Acuff responded to my query about how much change the very modest improvements in labor law the bill would bring, with his signature faith in working people. Yes, he agreed, the changes are modest-but they will give working people a chance to spread their wings, to develop the synergy that simply standing up to power on your own legs can bring. And that synergy can change the world. Workers could join a union without being subjected instantly to the terror, threats, firings, violence and psychological torture that the current National Labor Relations Board certification process demands.

Stewart’s message immediately rings true. It brings to mind an early campaign in an all-women electronics shop in Western Massachusetts. One of the leaders was a young woman from an extremely abusive, self-esteem killing background. But at the conclusion of the successful campaign and strike to get a contract, she proclaimed, proudly-I have found out who I really am.”

On the subject of Wisconsin, brother Acuff acknowledged the difficulties and obstacles-contrasting the recall procedure with the easier to understand, successful campaign against Ohio’s SB 5 — a measure to roll back collective bargaining rights similar to Walker’s efforts; conceding the imperfections of candidate running against Walker in the recall.

But he emphasized the positive-the unprecedented political mobilization of grass roots forces in both state efforts. He noted that Wisconsin’s Republicans were taking no victory laps, that the power in labor’s dedication to justice-not just for themselves, but for all who labor and all the people they serve — tells a powerful lesson-we can turn all the rats out of the public institutions they have captured and corrupted, and save our democracy, for which those who came before laid down their lives, and it our duty to preserve and expand for those who follow us.

Acuff was full of examples from around the world of the better life available to working people wherever they find out who they really are. He dwelt on the narrative of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva-beloved in Brazil as simply Lula-who began work at 13 as a shoeshine boy, and rose to lead the Brazilian trade union movement, the Workers Party, and the presidency of his country, accomplishing his nation’s greatest rollback of poverty and advance of working people’s rights in its history.

I am ready to roll, Stewart! I have not yet read your new book yet-but I will, as soon as I get my next social security check! My friend Scott Marshall read it-his review is here.

But I already know the conclusion. Read it! And don’t mourn. Organize!! 

Photo: (PW)



John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.