Parables for organizers: Don Tormey and the plane crash

United Electrical Workers (UE) International Representative Don Tormey was a man of few equals in debate, an organizer’s organizer. A native of Beverly, Mass., self-educated for the most part in the Boston Public Library during the Depression of the 1930s, he was possessed of a ferocious intellect, a deeper than Irish loyalty to working people, and one of the greatest gifts of gab in the business. He was a key guy in building, consolidating and defending the UE in the machine tool and related industry occupations in New England from the CIO days into the 1980s. UE leader Jim Matles often sent left-wingers who claimed they wanted to be in the labor movement to “tutor” with Tormey to find out if it was really true love or just infatuation. That’s how I met Don.

Few faces were so vivid. Few talkers had such a signature balance of clarity and complexity. But when he was done talking, most decisions were easy, and even the hard ones were easier to bear.

During the McCarthy witch-hunts he had the honor of being in contempt of the Massachusetts Un-American Committee. With help from his union, and the members who trusted him, he defeated them. He escaped prison.

Don had the job descriptions and pay rates of every machine tool job classification in New England at his fingertips. He knew their history too – of the machinists’ fathers, and the jobs as they had been done before, and how they changed and were changing. He knew the origin of each additional vacation day, pension benefit, health or safety improvement; he was keen on each new technology and its impact on the division of labor.

Yet up to his death in 1995, a local police chief had told him, he remained on the top of the list of those to be arrested “in the event of civil unrest.” To the end, he sought the rise of the working class and not to rise above it.

He was a Bolshevik to the end – not in the caricature that term came to convey in some quarters, but an original.

I last saw him shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, a state which had almost lasted as long as Tormey’s life. “So, Don” I asked. “How come Communism isn’t growing faster? How come it appears to be losing the productivity and modernization battle? Isn’t that the ultimate source of higher incomes?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I operate on the principle that the engine lathe operator in Moscow and the one in Springfield, Vermont, have similar problems, and more in common with each other than with their bosses. It’s true: When the working class throws out the bosses, and leads society for themselves, how much harder do you think we will work? Will we want more, or less, time off? Will we want to change occupations more frequently as technology advances the creativity of work? Or less? Can you, or should you, still fire people under socialism? These are challenges working people must solve. Capitalism, or at least its evils, will not be defeated by a system that is less creative, or less productive, of wealth.”

I countered him with “Maybe jobs can and will be different, more creative? But also less alienated?”

His reply: “You mean, like being an agitator?” A typical multi-layered Socratic question from Tormey. He likely engineered the whole conversation to that moment – what is the value created by the work of a union organizer?

Some who knew Tormey thought it arrogance to so seldom show confusion, or to shine quite so bright that our own shadows seemed longer in its light. Some saw a silver-tongued devil – and it was true he sometimes let his seductiveness get beyond control, and talked companies into concessions they actually could not afford.

“Don’t overrate the gift of gab, son,” he told me. “It’s the work of the world, that changes the world, every day.”

Don had a parable of union leadership he occasionally brought out for instruction at union stewards’ or officer training and leadership meetings. It’s called “The Plane Crash.” Here it is:


A commercial airliner crash-landed in the shallow waters off a remote Pacific island. Unfortunately, both the captain and co-pilot do not survive the landing. The flight attendants did not appear up to the task of leadership.

So, the most important person on the plane became a passenger who was a union organizer. Why her? Because it is the union organizer’s job to find the common ground on which all can, and must, unite, and deploy all the available human talent toward a useful role in achieving the common objective – in this case: survival. Find something for everyone to do – just like in a strike.

By announcing the first task to be taking an inventory of skills to improve their chances of effective survival, she became a de facto leader.

Forming a line, she quickly began interviewing the surviving passengers on their fitness and occupational backgrounds. She assigned a few others as she found them – a quarterback, and a CEO – to help her compile the interviews in parallel.

The first passenger in line was a carpenter by trade. “Wonderful,” she said. “Firewood is an immediate need. Resources for shelter another. There may be tools in the aircraft.”

The next passenger was a toolmaker. “Also wonderful. Follow the carpenter. He may need assistance in getting tools to cut firewood or prepare shelter. Survival may depend on finding or creating tools.”

The next passenger was a farmer. The next a fisherman. The next a cook. “Find what there is on the island to eat, and how to prepare it,” she said.

As passengers were interviewed they were assigned to already formed, or new, teams focused on food, shelter, fire, etc.

One passenger reported his occupation as investment banker, or, just plain “investor.” The organizer replied: “You will have to find another occupation, sir. What else can you do?”

The banker objected: “But what if we are here for a long time, and must have an economy, and a currency?”

“Maybe later,” the union organizer replied. “For now, find another occupation.”

Another passenger responded: “I am a teacher.”

“What do you teach? Not all subjects are of use here.”

[At this point, the reader must picture the very lively and motivated discussion that ensues amongst Tormey’s listeners – union stewards and officers and organizers – about which occupations are “useful” and which are not, and to what degree.]

Eventually, after many labors and some tragedies, the survivors managed to sustain a mode of survival on the island. After six months, they were finally found by the airlines and governments that had been looking for them.

As they prepared to leave the island, the carpenter, toolmaker, farmer, fisherman, cook, banker and teacher thanked the organizer for her work. “But now,” they said. “You too will have to find another occupation.”

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book, “Parables of the Working Class Movement.”

A note on parables: A parable is a story that has a double meaning. It contains a trick question. A good one captures the spirit of paradox in every moment yet does not stand still. Be careful of parables that appear to have a clearly stated moral. The real moral is at a right angle to the stated one.

Photo: Don Tormey in 1991. Courtesy UE News.








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.