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Winning with or without Mondale: labor and the election.

Winning With or Without Mondale

The hard, slogging work of local trade unionists who registered their members, campaigned in their workplaces and communities and got out the vote in the Democratic primaries saved Walter Mondale's hide when his candidacy was imperiled by Gary Hart. Can they do it again in November? A Mondale victory is a long shot and would require major foul-ups by President Reagan, but it is possible. If unions can hammer away during the final weeks of the campaign on the organizing and collective-bargaining issues that face their members, linking political action to a long-term strategy for reviving the labor movement at the grass roots, they could mobilize a large anti-Reagan vote. But even if Mondale loses, the unions' homestretch effort could help revitalize the labor movement.

Signs of renewed labor assertiveness are already apparent. Many unions that endorsed Mondale and continue to support him are moving beyond his centrist policies, particularly his unwillingness to challenge corporate power. In Chicago, the United Steelworkers of America is pushing for a municipal takeover of U.S. Steel's South Works plant because the company reneged on a promise to expand the plant and restore jobs. In a similar move earlier this year, when Gulf Western Industries announced it would close its Morse Cutting Tool division in New Bedford, Massachusetts, workers persuaded the city to invoke its power of eminent domain. As a result of the city's threat to take over the plant, the New York City-based conglomerate kept it open until a buyer acceptable to the union and the city could be found. The sale was completed last month, saving as many as 300 jobs at the plant and many others among the company's suppliers and at businesses dependent on the Gulf Western workers' patronage.

Also, last month, the United Automobile Workers won the right to represent 1,200 workers at the Superior Products auto parts plant in Van Nuys, California. The organizing campaign was carried on by union local leaders from the General Motors plant in Van Nuys, working largely through their ties in the black and Hispanic communities [see Eric Mann, "Workers and Community Take on G.M.,' The Nation, February 11]. And in negotiations just completed, the U.A.W. and the United Mine Workers each applied an innovative strategy of selective strikes rather than industrywide stoppages, shutting down key General Motors plants and independent coal operators, respectively, to back up their no-concessions bargaining stands.

In June, the International Association of Machinists was the moving force behind an international conference on conversion from military to civilian production which attracted hundreds of trade unionists and their allies, many of them from Western Europe. The participants discussed ways to save jobs should political efforts to reduce military spending be successful. Borrowing ideas from that conference, workers at a General Electric plant in Charleston, South Carolina, which makes parts for large steam turbine generators, are pressing management for a form of nonmilitary conversion--the introduction of alternative product lines to save 450 jobs at the plant, which is scheduled to be shut down in June because of declining orders.

An effective "corporate campaign' guided by the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Industrial Union Department, which combined legal, legislative and public pressure tactics, helped 1,900 workers at Litton Industries' microwave oven plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, reach a contract with the California conglomerate recently, nearly four years after they voted for union representation [see Compa, "How to Fight a Unionbusting Conglomerate,' The Nation, July 9-16, 1983]. Another creative effort, by the federation's Food and Allied Service Trades Department, helped the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers score important organizing gains in a nationwide effort among employees of the Beverly Enterprises nursing-home chain. Last year clerical workers at Yale University organized in the face of a sophisticated antiunion drive engineered by consultants hired by the university. Three weeks ago the Yale clericals launched a path-breaking strike centered on demands for comparable-worth pay adjustments for women and minority workers.

On foreign policy, many unions have moved to the left of the Democratic candidate. While Mondale has said he would "quarantine' Nicaragua, a dozen major unions led by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers have formed a national committee opposed to U.S. military intervention in Central America. The committee denounces military aid to El Salvador and plans to send a delegation to Nicaragua in December. Mondale has called for continued increases in military spending, but many of the twenty-four national unions that have endorsed the nuclear freeze resolution, which Mondale supports, are demanding cuts in military spending as well.

Many observers liken the labor movement to a dinosaur doomed to extinction and regard its backing of Mondale as a last-gasp effort. But the actions outlined here suggest that the labor movement could be on the verge of rebirth.

The key to that revival is the linking of separate initiatives at the national, regional and local levels with labor's 1984 political efforts. Rather than treating the day-to-day work of trade unionism--handling grievances, negotiating contracts, conducting strikes, developing organizing campaigns-- as tasks separate from the political campaign, union must combine these activities and political action in a comprehensive drive to rebuild their strength--and, incidentally, to elect Walter Mondale.

Shop stewards who have been coordinating voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts should continue their meetings after November 6, seeking both to improve their effectiveness on workplace issues and to develop a grass-roots lobbying network which could apply pressure on senators and representatives to block Reagan's second-term agenda if he wins, or hold Mondale's feet to the fire if he wins. Union officials and members mobilized for the election can move naturally from political campaigning to organizing in nonunion workplaces, applying techniques they used in the political campaign: planning meetings, targeted phone drives and mailings, rank-and-file education through leaflets and classes, labor and community rallies, one-on-one canvassing and the like.

The ties that local unionists have made with feminists, civil rights organizations, peace activists, environmentalists and other groups in the anti-Reagan coalition during the campaign must be transformed into lasting alliances. These new partners can be enlisted to help organize, support striking workers, fight plant closings and runaway shops, aid the unemployed and back other labor causes. Similarly, the unions can put their weight behind their allies' campaigns.

Local officers and stewards make up the critical mass in labor's election effort. Mobilized and motivated by a fighting program in the final weeks of the campaign, those activists could move Mondale from the 50-50 split that is now projected for the union household vote to a 60-40 edge. If the Democrats get a few other breaks, that shift could put Mondale over the top.

Independent political action grounded in the workplaces and communities where workers are organizing, bargaining and striking to defend their interests provides labor's best course for helping win a Mondale-Ferraro victory. But even if the Democrats lose, rank-and-file mobilization and labor-community alliances could create a political force capable of checking Reagan's assault in the next four years. It could also reverse the decline in union membership and bargaining clout, and make organized labor a movement again.
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Author:Compa, Lance
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 20, 1984
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