by Emanuel Fried

"You couldn't drive them out with a whip."

This accompanied a contemptuous gesture from the Tonawanda Remington Rand plant manager, aimed at our negotiating committee, ridiculing the weak situation we were in. And at that moment in time he was right. A strike was out of the question.

Many people may be unaware of the byzantine currents and cross‑currents going on within what to them may seem to be a grubby run‑of‑the‑mill labor‑management dispute.

Beneath the apparent grubby run‑of‑the‑mill surface there usually is a fascinating complication that may include involvement by political parties from far left to far right, Church and other religious organizations, company‑hired stoolpigeons and provocateurs, outside employer organizations, FBI and other intelligence agents (trying to sniff out overly strong commitments to the working class that they deem might be subversive to capitalism) and rival labor organizations—along with federal, state and local government officials—making contact with union members and often setting up secret caucuses inside the union to try to control the union's direction and use it to further their own particular purposes.

Years ago I was a union organizer and I was involved in many contract negotiations, What happened when we were trying to negotiate a contract with the Remington Rand Corporation illustrates the complications I believe are still being actively created beneath the grubby surface of current labor-management disputes.

It was July 14, 1950. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had certified our union as the bargaining agent and we had presented our contract proposals to the plant managers from two Remington Rand plants, one in Tonawanda, the other in North Tonawanda. The two small industrial towns were divided by the western end of New York State's Erie Canal.

I had been labeled "the outside agitator" by the company and the Tonawanda newspaper because my home where I'd lived since I was a child was a few miles south in the city of Buffalo.

1950 was a tough time for our union. We were UE—United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers—one of ten International Unions forced to separate from the CIO back then, charged with being "communist-dominated"—after we refused to obey the order from the CIO's top leaders that in the presidential election our union must endorse Truman and the Cold War, our union instead endorsing Henry Wallace who favored continuing the cooperation with the Soviet Union that had produced victory over Germany and Japan.

Our UE local union—representing workers at the Remington Rand plants in Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, both plants being treated as one unit—had a noble history. Always militant and zealously guarding rank‑and‑file control of their local union, the workers had shifted as a unit from one International Union to another, fighting and winning difficult picket fine battles against a corporation known for its use of imported strikebreaking thugs as part of its well organized union‑busting program.

Rem Rand workers exulted for many years about the Battle of the Rock Pile. They had showered strikebreaking thugs with rocks piled in preparation for the crucial picket line clash and drove out the imported New York City gangsters who were armed with guns and clubs. Lack of support from the International Union to which they belonged at that time led them to vote to transfer their local into our UE Union.

In a notable case involving discharge of Charles Cooper, the local union president, the Supreme Court had issued its decision upholding the Wagner Act, establishing workers' right to organize and providing for reinstatement of workers like Charlie Cooper, workers fired for trying to organize a union.

But Cooper had died, and the Vice President had succeeded into the presidency. Cooper had warned me about the VP, did not trust him, thought he was a clever mole planted deep inside the union by the company—also told me that the VP had been an organizer back in the 30's for the politically ultra‑right Catholic priest Father Coughlin.

About a year after the Second World War ended and shortly after Cooper died we were involved in a long tough strike against Remington Rand. I had just returned to the organizer's job from my army service overseas in the Pacific.

Many of the strikers were, like myself, recently returned war veterans. One day while some of us, wearing our army uniforms, were walking on the picket line in front of the Tonawanda plant, a bloody fight erupted in front of the plant on the north side of the canal, with North Tonawanda police attacking the picket line, swinging clubs to clear a path for imported scabs.

Years later—after I supported re‑affiliation of our UE local unions in the area to an AFL‑CIO International Union whose leaders immediately surrendered to FBI pressure to fire me—I went back to my long abandoned acting career. A theatre photographer with whom I developed a friendship told me that the bloody attack on the Rem Rand strikers had been planned in advance to provide justification to get an injunction against the union to restrict picketing. He had been hired to plan and take photos of that event.

He also told me that it was I, the union organizer, who had been selected to have my head busted open. But the man heading the trucking firm which was running trucks through the picket fine was a friend of my father‑in‑law and he persuaded the plant managers to spare me, the son‑in‑law. Another victim was selected. I remember only the first name of that victim. Adam took my place and got his head busted open.

Although that bloody head busting incident took place many years ago I still feel somewhat guilty about the way I was spared and poor Adam's head instead of mine was split open with a billy club. I still remember the blood pouring down over the young man's face.

That strike was settled, with the former‑VP‑now‑president approving the settlement at the bargaining table, then opposing it at the union meeting where members were to vote whether or not to accept the agreement. However, he concluded his attack on our UE International Union by saying it was too late to do anything other than to "accept this bad settlement."

A few weeks after the people went back to work our former‑VP‑now‑president walked off his job at the North Tonawanda plant, calling upon his fellow workers to walk off the job with him, striking the plant again.

But the workers were still too exhausted, financially and otherwise, from the recently concluded long strike, and only a few of his closest supporters followed him out of that plant. When they saw how few they were they went back to work, leaving the former‑VP‑now‑president walking a one‑man picket line.

When I questioned him, he said he walked out of the plant because he had tried to file a grievance and got fired. I couldn't pin him down on what that grievance was about.

At that point Remington Rand took advantage of our obviously weak situation to declare they were no longer recognizing our UE union as bargaining agent for their employees. They refused to accept the grievance we filed on behalf of the fired former‑VP‑now‑president who still presided over the local union's meetings, verbally trashing our UE International Union—indirectly attacking me, the International Representative—for not getting him his job back.

Despite the fact that our local union's office secretary had already stumbled across a written message to our former‑VP‑now‑president revealing that he was surreptitiously trying to sign up people in the North Tonawanda plant for a different union, we tried—unsuccessfully in that period of redbaiting against our UE International Union—to get the Labor Board to order the company to reinstate him to his job.

By that time the CIO had merged with the AFL, and the redbaiting attack against our UE union intensified. FBI agents visited our local union leaders in the area, pressuring them to disaffiliate from the "communist‑dominated" union. A North Tonawanda priest in his church repeatedly attacked our union from the pulpit. A Buffalo priest publicly declared in a statement appearing in the Buffalo newspaper that those workers who supported our union were supporting the Anti-Christ.

The former‑VP‑now‑president hid his undercover work for another union while he continued to loudly badmouth our inability to get him his job back. By now it appeared to some of the other officers in the Rem Rand local union—and to me—that his discharge might have been planned with the company and others to open the way for him to undermine and destroy our union.

We talked it over and decided that for the time being we were better off not to force him out of our UE local by revealing that we had the evidence that he was circulating membership cards for the United Auto Workers (UAW). We respected the UAW and thought that in that redbaiting period their Detroit leaders must have been pressured into ordering the raid against our Rem Rand local union.

Our former‑VP‑still‑our‑UE‑local‑union‑president unexpectedly perhaps pushed by the UAW, broke out of UE. He announced this with a leaflet letter distributed to the people at both plants as they went in to work one morning, charging that our UE International Union could not get him back to work because the company would not deal with a "communist‑dominated" union. He called upon the workers to follow him into the UAW, an "American union."

In the hysteria whipped up about communists after the Second World War, the UAW—probably based on reports from the former president of our UE local union—may have thought the Rem Rand workers really wanted to get out of our UE union so they would not be charged with being part of a "communist‑dominated" outfit. The UAW apparently did submit membership cards signed by 30% of the Rem Rand workers, which enabled them to petition the Labor Board to hold a secret election. The date was set for February 28, 1950.

As the previous certified bargaining agent we were not required to submit UE membership cards to be included on the ballot. But to test our strength we did circulate UE membership cards and had cards signed by 69% of the workers in both Rem Rand plants.

As the date for the election neared, the UAW apparently realized they were in trouble. Their leaflets intensified the redbaiting, including sample ballots with the American flag in the UAW box and the Soviet hammer and sickle in the UE box.

This did not seem to win more support for them. So they put out a leaflet which was intended to destroy any loyalty to UE based on loyalty of the Rem Rand workers to the union organizer who'd worked closely with them since 1941—me.

It was a freezing morning. About 6:30. A grey day. Smoke particles emerging from the tall brick smoke stacks in nearby factories, instead of rising, were dropping in a slanting stream to the ground.

I was at the Tonawanda plant's main entrance, giving UE leaflets to workers entering the building when our former UE local union president, with large VOTE UAW buttons pinned on his chest, arrived with the UAWs leaflets. We did not acknowledge each other's presence.

Workers entering the plant gate silently took a leaflet from each of us as they passed by. It was too early in the morning to talk.

Then the astonishing thing happened. Workers who had silently accepted both UE and UAW leaflets as they entered the building reemerged to angrily throw crumpled UAW leaflets into the face of our former UE local union president.

This included some men I knew well who had said that although UE had done a good job for them they were going to swing over to UAW because of the "red issue."

I stopped one of our strong UE supporters and got him to show me the leaflet our former UE local union president had given him.

The leaflet called on the Rem Rand workers to get rid of the "Red Rat" by voting for UAW.

There was a large drawing of a rat with strong UAW fingers holding the rat, dangling the rat by its ugly tail. And there was my name printed in big letters on the body of the ugly rat.

The workers had quietly accepted the charge of "communist‑dominated" aimed against the top officers of our UE union. But they knew me personally and I think they knew I always did what they democratically decided, and they must have consciously or unconsciously been aware that I had put my heart, my whole life, into doing my best to improve their lives at the same time as my family was being put through hell because of the way newspapers were crucifying me in connection with our battle here at Remington Rand.

That leaflet backfired so badly for the UAW that a drastic decision was made by whoever it was above them who was masterminding the effort to destroy our UE local union, The decision was made by someone somewhere to substitute the IUE union for the UAW. I think the top UAW officers in Detroit may have been glad they were allowed to get off the hook.

The IUE at the time had been set up with the direct and wide open assistance of the FBI. It was a crazy time. President Harry Truman, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and other leading "liberals"—and yes, "socialists" of many stripes—publicly joined the attack against our UE union as part of their effort to counter any charge by their political opponents that they themselves were "soft on communism."

In an effort to confuse workers, the IUE name (International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers) had been deliberately created to be similar to UE (United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers).

The Labor Board, most likely under pressure, played its role in the dirty game in that crazy demonizing time—declaring that IUE had submitted sufficient signed cards for their union to be included in the election—though our UE members in the plants said there was no sign of any such cards being circulated.

Over our objection that they were violating their own precedents, the Labor Board allowed UAW to withdraw, substituting IUE and postponing the election to June 15, 1950, apparently to give IUE time to gain support.

And our former UE local union president had no trouble switching his advocacy for UAW to advocacy for IUE, changing the buttons he prominently wore.

Despite statements from Vice President Hubert Humphrey and other equally prominent figures urging Rem Rand workers to vote for IUE, the vote by secret ballot conducted by the Labor Board on June 15 resulted in 342 votes for UE and 295 votes for IUE.

I actually felt sorry for the pathetic former president of our UE local union. When the Labor Board representative announced the results, he broke down and sobbed, "We gave them a chance to vote for an American union and they turned us down."

That was the end of his influence on the Rem Rand situation. He was given a job at the nearby paper making plant where I believe he never would have been hired if he were really an honest union militant.

(For the record, the IUE apparently has long since shed the close association it had back then with the FBI and recently became part of the highly respected Communication Workers of America.)

Winning that election did not solve our dispute with Remington Rand.

We still had our volunteer organizing committee, about a dozen Rem Rand workers who had been up front as leaders in the election campaign. We called a meeting of all the workers in both plants to prepare for negotiations—but no one else showed up.

I was told the workers thought the only way to get the company to agree to restore the protections that existed in the previous contract was by striking the plants. They did not want could not handle—going out on strike now. We recognized that a strike was out of the question now, especially with the split loyalty remaining from the ugly election fight that had just taken place.

Though the Labor Board had certified us as the bargaining agent to represent all workers in both plants, very few workers there were ready to pay union dues.

I was told most people in both plants did not believe we were in a position to get a decent contract from the company. Some thought we'd be better off not even to try right now, that we should avoid getting a lousy agreement put into a two or three year binding contract.

I assumed that the two plant managers knew our situation since, like most savvy factory executives, they probably had developed a network of collaborating workers to keep them informed and to advance the company's interests from within the workers' ranks—a normal thing that any savvy union organizer takes for granted.

So what to do?

Do something and if that doesn't work—do something else.

We announced there would be no effort to collect union dues until a satisfactory contract was negotiated and approved in secret balloting by a majority of the workers in both plants.

The members of our rank‑and‑file organizing committee, still there from the Labor Board election, persuaded the workers in each department—disregarding which union, if any, they favored or had voted for or opposed—to elect a representative to an overall committee which served not as a union committee but as a neutral unity committee to decide what proposals—(not "demands")—to present to the company.

The neutral unity committee selected a smaller negotiating committee to go with me to meet the two plant managers at the bargaining table.

To make our position worse, the company negotiated with the unions at their plants elsewhere, giving the workers there a small hourly wage increase, and announced they were putting the same wage increase into effect for workers in the two plants we represented in the Tonawandas. Their intent, I assumed, was to undermine the proposal for a substantial wage increase they must have learned we were going to present to them. We could have filed a complaint with the Labor Board, charging that Rem Rand could not put the wage increase into effect until they negotiated an agreement with us, but decided that would be unwise.

We met with the two plant managers, presented our written proposals, including restoring the incentive wage guarantees and protections we had in our previous contract, which the company had already eliminated, resulting in wage cuts for most production workers.

Also, as spokesperson for the committee, I told the two plant managers we accepted the small wage increase they had just put into effect, accepted it as an inadequate down payment on the substantial wage increase included in our proposals.

The Tonawanda plant manager ridiculed our proposals, tossing the papers back at us, and presented us with the company's conclusion as to what the contract would be—no additional wage increase and minus all the incentive wage guarantees and protections that had been there in our previous contract.

During the next few weeks we had several useless meetings with both plant managers and reported no progress back to very sparsely attended meetings of the workers who were still skeptical about getting any positive results.

Since none of the workers in both plants were paying dues, we were negotiating on behalf of a work force of over 600 workers where technically we had no union members.

At a subsequent "negotiating" meeting the Tonawanda plant manager—knowing our situation—questioned the need for further negotiations, telling us we had the company's final offer. When I tried to indicate resistance, saying the people in the shop would not accept that, he ridiculed our ability to get the workers to strike.

That was when he gestured with contempt to our committee members seated at the table beside me and said, "You couldn't drive them out with a whip."

He had gone too far. Our committee members were insulted, felt a need to defend their dignity and their respect for themselves. They wanted to do something to fight back.

They conceded that a strike was out of the question. I floated the idea of a plant‑wide slowdown. They thought we could do that in the Tonawanda plant where the tool and die shop, the machine shop and the drill presses, grinders and most other machines were located—and where the overwhelming majority had voted for our UE union—and where there were at least twice as many workers as in the North Tonawanda plant.

The committee of elected department representatives met, went back and checked with workers in each department. That developed a full turnout at a meeting of workers from both plants where after much debate—to avoid being faced with the need to strike to get back incentive wage guarantees and protections—they voted by a narrow margin to approve a slowdown by workers in the Tonawanda plant.

The slowdown was set for the following Monday.

We knew the company was aware of this and tried to guess what their response would be. We quickly found out. About two hours after the Monday morning shift at the Tonawanda Plant started the slowdown, the company shut down the whole plant and sent all the workers home, giving them a penalty of three days off without pay.

We held a long special meeting of all the Tonawanda plant workers and finally worked out a new strategy—a one week slowdown of one department at a time, starting with the toolmakers and moving the departmental week‑long slowdown along with the material—as the material being worked on advanced to each subsequent department—continuing right on through to the last department in the chain of production—the shipping department.

What they were making in the Tonawanda plant was metal office equipment: filing cabinets, etc. We expected the company to treat the highly skilled tool and die makers carefully, not fire them, since they were hard to replace. In fact, most of the workers in the Tonawanda plant were highly skilled and would, in that time of full employment, be impossible to quickly replace.

But the company had to retaliate. They sent the tool and die making department workers home, a week off without pay.

We called a special meeting. This time workers from both plants turned out in full force. I think they may have sensed that we had hit upon a strategy that might work—without a strike. They voted with only a few dissents to have the department representatives collect two hours pay each week from every worker in their departments for a special fund to make up lost wages for those workers who were sent home.

We said nothing about joining our union or paying dues, despite pressure I was getting from our national director of organization who phoned me every day, gruffly demanding, "What the hell are you doing up there now?"

The successful slowdown was uniting the people in the plants, giving them a sense of strength, of power, of importance.

I think it was in the third week of the slowdown that the company raised the ante. In addition to sending home and giving a week off without pay to machine shop workers who were slowing down, the Tonawanda plant manager fired two members of our negotiating committee.

We retaliated with an almost unanimous vote from a large turnout of workers from both plants to continue the slowdown until we secured a satisfactory settlement and a satisfactory answer to our demand—(not "proposal")—that the fired workers be reinstated to their jobs with full back pay for time lost.

The Tonawanda plant manager, at our next futile negotiating session, firmly declared that those fired workers would never again enter a Remington Rand plant.

The slowdown solidly ground on week after week. I worried that the company might shut the plants down, locking out all the workers. But in that case the workers might be eligible to draw weekly unemployment insurance checks which in New York state are fairly liberal.

The plant managers and executives above them must have believed it was impossible to keep that slowdown going strong week after week, that at some point it would start to falter, slacken and then break. Their underground network within our ranks tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the slowdown.

Frankly, I and our negotiating committee never thought we would have such solid support, keeping the slowdown going week after week. Five weeks. Six weeks. Seven weeks. Eight weeks. Nine Weeks.

When we met with the two plant managers during the tenth week the Tonawanda plant manager lost his cool. He must have been getting a lot of pressure from his bosses. Angrily slamming his fist on the table, he shouted, "Why don't you act like men and take your people out there on strike?"

We had two women along with four men on our negotiating committee, the same women and men that the Tonawanda plant manager had sneeringly told me weeks earlier, "You couldn't drive them out with a whip". Now he couldn't drive them out with a whip.

The slowdown continued through the eleventh week and the twelfth week. And on the first day of the thirteenth work week, Monday, it was the shipping department workers' turn to slow down This was the last department in the production process. Workers there pack and ship out the finished product.

The shipping department workers were different from workers in the other departments. They wore white shirts. Some wore ties. They considered themselves to be a cut above the other production workers. And to prove that to others and to themselves they tended to field justifications for the management's arguments in disputes with the union.

The other workers in the Tonawanda plant were aware that this Monday morning it was the shipping department workers' turn to slow down—and they were alert to see what would happen there. The grapevine flashed the news throughout the plant that the shipping department workers had broken ranks and were defiantly working at top speed, swiftly packing and preparing filing cabinets to be loaded onto trucks and shipped out.

Almost four hundred men and women in the rest of the plant spontaneously stopped work and stormed over to the shipping department area, surrounding the shipping department workers and loudly booing and booing and booing—the booing continuing in a drawn‑out roar, on and on and on and on—it becoming clear that the booing was not going to stop until it got a satisfactory response.

The shipping department foreman was known to be a good guy, When he apparently thought there was sufficient reason to be able to act, he acted.

"All right," he yelled at his crew, "It's your turn. Get the hell out of here."

That was the week the Tonawanda plant manager, speaking for the company, quietly agreed to reinstate the fired workers and signed a new contract restoring protections that had existed in the old contract—and granting an additional wage increase. We learned that the added wage increase would also be given to workers at all Remington Rand plants in other cities.

Rem Rand workers ratified the settlement and called off the slowdown. And all the workers in the Tonawanda and North Tonawanda plants—except for a few who still demonized our UE union as the Anti‑Christ—signed membership cards authorizing union dues to be deducted from their wages.

This labor‑management dispute, culminating in the successful thirteen week slowdown by the Remington Rand workers, one of the longest—if not the longest—slowdowns of factory workers that has ever taken place in our country, is a good example of the fascinating complication existing beneath what might appear on the surface to be just another grubby run‑of‑the‑mill labor‑management dispute.

Written 2001, first published by The Autodidact Project.
©2003 Emanuel Fried. All rights reserved.

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