By Steve Early
In the 1970s, as in the 1930s, left-wing activists who wanted to become working class organizers mainly headed for auto assembly lines, trucking company loading docks, coal mines, shipyards or steel mills. In all those gritty blue-collar venues, rank-and-file militancy was on the rise and the prospects for labor “radicalization” looked good. Three or four decades later, young American radicals similarly inclined to “colonize” often found themselves in very different workplace circumstances. The real action was no longer in America’s old industrial proletariat; it was among “the precariat,” the millions of native-born and immigrant workers who lacked traditional benefit coverage, union contract protection, and any semblance of job security.
This change of scenery reflected, in part, a much-noted intervening shift from traditional blue-collar employment to service sector jobs. By the beginning of the new millennium, the once commanding heights of the “old economy” had been reduced, in many mid-western cities, to a sad pile of post-industrial rubble. By 2012, there were 5.5 million fewer factory jobs than in July, 2000 and those that remained, in the auto industry, were paying $14 an hour for new hires–half the wages of newly hired workers only a decade before.
One by-product of manufacturing downsizing is our current shrunken, disheartened, and marginalized industrial union culture. Within the United Auto Workers, Steel Workers, Teamsters, and other one-time mid-western union giants, little remains of the labor left’s once active shop-floor presence. Labor insurgency today is more likely to be found among workers making closer to the minimum wage, in fast food or retail jobs, than bottom tier pay in auto plants. And these struggles, while backed by some traditional unions, are being waged by less formal, community-based workers’ organizations.
In 2005, the small left group known as Solidarity published a well-crafted appeal addressed to “young radical activists” contemplating entry into some sector of the labor field. It urged them to work for “change from below”—always a good place to start– by “taking jobs in targeted workplaces to organize.” This course of action was projected as an alternative to using campus experience as a labor ally to get hired, after graduation, as full-time staffer for a union or workers’ center. Radicals at Work: An Activist Strategy for Revitalizing the Labor Movement was carefully ecumenical on the question of whether former students should seek employment in non-union shops or “go into already organized ones to build workplace organization”–the union reform caucus route taken by members of the same group when it was known as the International Socialists in the 1970s and influential in the founding of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).
Nevertheless, in a 2002 internal document, Solidarity continued to argue that political work among “unionized industrial workers is essential to the revitalization of the labor movement and the socialist project.” As a guide to personal career planning in labor, this assertion proved to be a less persuasive in the early 21st century than in the last quarter of the previous one. “With only 6 or 7 percent of the workforce organized in the private sector, rank-and-file caucuses aren’t the answer for a lot of people,” admitted one young Solidarity member, who had cast his own lot, bravely but atypically, with TDU.
Adding More Salts?
Far more veterans of recent campus activism have embraced the challenge of organizing the unorganized, on the new frontiers of the service sector. There, some national unions have been eager to train and deploy underground organizers—now more commonly known as “salts,” rather than as “colonizers,” with its older connotation of having a political agenda broader than just union building
One promoter of the inside approach is Peter Olney, who dropped out of Harvard (like Bill Gates, he notes) and later worked as an elevator operator and refrigeration mechanic at a unionized hospital in Boston. In the 1970s, Olney belonged to a “vanguard party” that encouraged its members to become coal miners, steel workers, and other kinds of industrial workers. In the 1980s, he moved to the west coast and became a full-time union organizer, ending up on the staff of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The ILWU has a long history of support for progressive political causes, from its founding in the 1930s to the present day. But, like many other unions, its core membership has aged and shrunk, due to technological change, industry restructuring, and job elimination through attrition. After Olney became the union’s organizing director, he invoked the lessons of labor history when he called for “a broad-based plan that emphasizes ‘salting’ or planting organizers in key workplaces and industries” to help unions rebuild their lost strength. Olney argued that:
“Salting was one factor in much of the labor upsurge of the 1930s when communists, socialists, and other progressives ‘industrialized’ to build worker power in the mines, mills, and fields. This, more than hiring young people as organizers, is the way to promote large-scale organization. Nothing can replace the presence of these politicized organizers in the workplaces of America. Nothing can replace this experience in teaching young organizers, largely from a non-working class background, what the working class is about and how to talk and especially listen to workers. Salting needs to become fashionable again for young people politically committed to reinvigorating the labor movement. “
It may be one sign of the times that employment in the service sector, retail and hospitality industries, is easier to obtain without concealing, via a falsified job application, your educational background as a four-year degree holder. In today’s world of downward mobility, no one seems to be “overqualified” anymore—a tip-off that once enabled HR managers to finger New Left infiltrators, with college experience, who made a bee-line for traditional blue-collar jobs in the 1970s. But serious long-term salting is never for dilettantes, in any era. As the personal stories below confirm, recruiting co-workers to take on the boss can be a far more complex and challenging role than assisting workplace organizing from the outside, as a full-time union staff member….