A letter from Staughton Lynd concerning 'direct unionism'

Friends,

I am entering an ongoing conversation about “Direct Unionism” and recognize that I have missed out on earlier episodes. I also am less informed about the early history of the IWW than either Juan Conatz or Sean G. Here are my two cents’ worth of opinions:

1. I agree with FW Conatz that employers almost always want a contract to include no-strike and management rights clauses. The draftspersons of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) went out of their way in Section 13 of the law as originally enacted to rebut the notion that once you had a contract you should no longer need the right to strike. John Sargent, first president of Local 1010, United Steelworkers at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, was convinced that the local union accomplished more for its members before the local union was recognized as an exclusive bargaining representative and a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement, including a no-strike clause, was negotiated. See his oral history in “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers” (1982). What happened was that the new CIO national unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America in 1937, gave away the right to strike.

2. I agree with Sean G. that there is nothing inherently sinful about reducing an oral understanding to writing. At the big Westinghouse plant east of Pittsburgh in the 1930s, if the management and the union reached an understanding about a particular matter, it would be written up and posted in the plant. And under Section 301 of the NLRA as amended, such an agreement can be enforced in the courts, and is therefore less likely to be ignored by management.

3. Where the problem arises, in my opinion, is what it means for a union to be “recognized.” The usual understanding, favored by U.S. labor policy, is that when a union is recognized it becomes the exclusive representative of workers in that bargaining unit. Such recognition puts the union in a position to have management automatically deduct dues from the workers’ paychecks, the so-called “dues check-off.” Workers interviewed in the 1960s and early 1970s who had experienced the self-organization of workers in the 1930s mentioned this most frequently as the reason that “your [watch]dog don’t bark no more.”

I think there is much to be said for the typical European arrangement of many “recognized” unions in the same workplace, as opposed to the idea of a particular union as exclusive representative.

- FW Staughton Lynd

Originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Industrial Worker newspaper