A steelworker’s thoughts on “democracy”

The recent discussion of democracy and Soviet socialism, for me, brought back some memories of the difficult 1990 contract talks between the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and management at Lorain Works in Lorain, Ohio. These were the first contract talks to take place after the historic year-long lock-out of union workers, and they occurred during a time that labor-management partnership teams (LMPTs) were beginning to promote the concept that workers and corporations had the same interests domestically. On the international scene, it was the beginning of the collapse of socialism in Europe. Questions of what was – and what was not – “democratic” were very much at issue.

The Lorain USWA local had adopted the LMPT concept wholeheartedly, allowing management to arbitrarily appoint workers of their choice to new “team-leader” positions. These “chosen” ones were awarded air-conditioned offices, given straight day shifts, and their time was spent in meetings and putting out the “Labor-Management Newsletter,” rather than working shifts on their old jobs.

Workers were concerned as the contract deadline approached. The ’86 lock-out fight had been tough. A year was a long time to spend on picket lines. Many had fallen behind and some even lost homes, vehicles, suffered health problems, got divorced, etc. Nobody wanted another walkout and the company fed these fears.

As the expiration date neared, the LMPTs moved into action. A new, “reasonable” company proposal was put out by the LMPTs, given directly to the workers, avoiding the legal channel of first going to the union’s Negotiating Committee. This wonderful and “reasonable” company proposal’s biggest selling point was that it avoided a strike; plus, wonder of wonders, they were “giving us a raise.” A company-backed campaign took off, with slick published literature. The LMPT workers were given time off to push it.

The central theme of this drive was “Let Us Vote!” The union was “undemocratic,” and all these “reasonable” folks wanted was just “democracy and the right to vote!”

All this coincided with the union’s organization of a mass meeting to inform workers of the progress of negotiations, and what the issues were. That meeting, held at the local high school, was a disaster! Thousands of workers turned out, as well as worried family members. Foremen and company officials attended, and the LMPTs were there, handing out the company’s “reasonable” proposal. A petition to decertify the union was being pushed outside the meeting by company types. USWA International president Lynn Williams was drowned out by yelling and chants of “Let Us Vote.” Anarchy reigned, and nobody had any idea what the actual issues were.

Meanwhile, left-oriented workers associated with the progressive Rank & File Committee had held an emergency meeting and, working with some of the better union officials, they’d worked out a plan of action. Before the company/LMPT folks could try to call for a vote, a fight was started among the crowd. One of the Rank & Filers jumped up, calling for a motion that “We stand with our International Union and will strike, if necessary!” It passed, (although few could actually hear anything), the meeting was adjourned, and president Williams was quickly rushed from the hall.

The headlines in the morning paper cried: “Steelworkers will STRIKE, if necessary!”

The company LMPT-appointed agents screamed foul! The union was “undemocratic!” The LMPT newsletter demanded “democracy” and “the right to vote.” In a certain sense, they were correct, that is, if democracy was a neutral, non-class-controlled and -influenced issue. However, from the point of view of the union and the workers, we had now gained the room to allow workers to reassert our control of our own situation. For the union workers, it had become clear that “democracy” was actually only democratic if workers’ control was also part of the equation.

Quickly a new Rank & File newsletter (“Truth”) was put out at the gates, explaining that the company’s “reasonable” proposal would have actually allowed management to contract out workers’ jobs and arbitrarily eliminate jobs. It would have replaced the newly won pension plan with saving plans and done away with the union grievance and safety committees, all replaced by labor/management committees actually controlled by the company. Instead of a nationwide common contract expiration date, it would have created a new long-term contract that separated the Lorain local from the rest of the unionized industry. The newsletter also listed the USWA’s issues and explained how they would impact regular workers and their families. The union quickly rented trailers and set them at the gates, as though a strike was being prepared.

Instantly the political situation shifted. The “decert” petition disappeared, and a new union mass meeting was called.

The next meeting was entirely different. To enter, workers presented their union cards. A lit table contained only the contract, the union paper and the USWA Negotiating Committee’s official summary of the union/company proposals. After entering, workers were orderly and went to official mikes controlled by union volunteers if they had comments or questions. The small handful of corporate thugs that came to disrupt the meeting were immediately escorted outside. Workers held their own meeting, with many questions and comments. In the end, they left, informed and ready, if not happy, to fight if need be.

A week later a new tentative contract was approved by the USWA committee. The vote was not close. A strike was avoided and workers and their families protected their hard-won standards and made gains.

All this certainly raises many questions as to what exactly is, or is not, democratic. The lesson that it brought home to me, however, was that democracy, like all other social, political and economic questions is not a neutral non-class issue, immune to or above the class struggle. Democracy, from a working-class perspective, cannot exist without the issue of whether working people have control over their own lives and working conditions.

Our nation’s revolutionary founding brought with it many great democratic gains. However, wealthy oligarchs controlled things and only white property-owning males had won voting rights. The ending of slavery, women’s voting rights, the right to unionize, and every other right we now enjoy were gained only at the cost of blood and great struggle.

The fight for democracy is central to all of our struggles. However, just as the fight to eliminate slavery ultimately could not be separated from that of “40 acres and a mule,” our democratic struggles are separated from the issue of “who controls the wealth” only at our ultimate peril!

Photo: Keith Scrakocic/AP


Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and leader in Ohio Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.