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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Milton Alvin

Union Problems in California


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, pp.91-93.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ON JANUARY 1, Governor Brown announced that California had become the largest state in the Union. At the same time, the AFL-CIO announced it was organizing a widespread campaign to bring three-quarters of a million new members into its various unions in the Southern California area.

Although New York’s Governor Rockefeller put off until next summer the time that California would pass his domain, it seems sure that the Golden State is, or is soon to become the largest in the United States. Whether the union movement will follow in step and surpass in numbers the membership in the Empire State remains to be seen.

The burgeoning population growth of the western states has been most marked in the Southern California region, in and around Los Angeles. It is hard to believe that 200 years ago the only inhabitants of this area were a few Stone Age Indians. Today 6½ million people live in Los Angeles and adjoining Orange counties and some 30,000 people migrate here from other parts of the United States every month.

Jobs Attract

Other factors than the favorable climate and more spacious living conditions draw people from the crowded cities of the east. Since World War II, Southern California has experienced a huge industrial growth which has opened up numerous job opportunities. This has attracted many people and will continue to do so. The boom has stimulated a substantial expansion of cultural activities and the construction of sizeable new facilities for higher education, as well as a surplus of homes and apartments,

ON THE industrial side, Los Angeles passed Detroit and Philadelphia as a manufacturing center several years ago and is now challenging Chicago for second place in America. In the past 14 years alone, Los Angeles added more industrial workers than Detroit at present has. In the past 22 years, that is, since the early World War II days, Los Angeles has outstripped the following industrial centers: St. Louis, Cleveland, Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia. This astonishing record of growth is very likely unmatched in American history.

The most sensational rise in employment has been in two relatively new industries, aircraft and electrical machinery, the latter including electronics. The aerospace industry, which includes manufacturing of aircraft and missiles, employs about 140,000 people. This is less than the high of around 175,000 in 1954 but still double the figure for 1947. The electrical machinery industry is now at the top in employment, utilizing some 150,000 workers, about five times as many as in 1954.

Need US Contracts

The source of this vast increase in employment is government contracts. In 1961 more than 41 percent of the Defense Department’s prime research and development contracts came to Southern California, as well as about 20 percent of the prime defense contracts. These prime contracts, in turn, swell the ranks of secondary suppliers and subcontractors. The central core of industry in this area is completely and directly dependent upon the Federal government, the only customer for its products.

At the same time, other industries, building construction, food supply, clothing, services and everything else which grows to keep pace are beneficiaries of the Defense Department and its orders.

SOME observers see Southern California as an emerging pattern for all the United States. For example, Harrison E. Salisbury, writing in a special supplement to the Western edition of the New York Times of January 3, 1963, says,

“... today with the emergence of California as the nation’s most populous state – and vortex of the most dynamic social changes on the continent – the conviction is growing that on the Pacific slopes and adjacent western deserts the pattern of America’s tomorrow has begun to reveal itself.”

Unfortunately, Salisbury does not specify just what the “most dynamic social changes” are and where they are to be found. But he does note such obvious features as the increased mobility of the residents of the area, their tract homes, Capri pants, sunglasses, sandals and halter-and-shorts street wear. Although these may represent differences from the east, they hardly add up to anything dynamic in the way of social changes.

Nevertheless, the growth of industry, population and employment does reveal the dynamism of monopoly capitalism, especially in its production of death-dealing instruments. On the other hand, the union movement has been lacking in energy and instead has shown signs of stagnation for years.

Union Growth Lags

The unions have failed to keep up with the growth of employment in the Southern California area. The AFL-CIO estimates that there are no less than 750,000 “organizable” workers in the region. Many of these are employed at low wage scales; some, in paternalistic defense plants, are paid as well as workers who are in unions. At any rate, the AFL-CIO has mounted an extensive campaign to try to organize these workers. This will be the first such effort here since the early years of the CIO.

A considerable amount of planning is reported to have gone into the projected drive. The field has been divided into four main branches: hard goods industries, soft goods, hotels and services, and government employees. The various international unions involved in the campaign have worked out in advance certain jurisdictional claims and have promised a high degree of cooperation with one another.

THE internal maneuvering between the rival factions headed by Meany and Reuther has delayed the launching of the drive which was scheduled to begin months ago. At that time Reuther’s Industrial Union Department planned to begin the campaign around three or four large industrial unions. However, Meany intervened to make the IUD just part of a broader effort involving the AFL-CIO as a whole and under the control of his organizing department. This has resulted in a considerable amount of jockeying for position by the different factions, several delays and a slow start.

Open Shop Paradise

The Southern California area has long been known as an open shop paradise. The union movement is considerably weaker here than it is in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay area. The northern segment is more strongly and extensively organized and enjoys, as a rule, better wages and working conditions.

It will not be easy to change the relationship of forces in favor of the workers in Southern California. This area is fortified with conservative elements directed by reactionary employers’ organizations, right-wing politicians and powerful anti-union newspapers, not to speak of expert union-busting “consultants” who know all the tricks of their trade.

Their methods of blocking the advance of unionism can be seen in a local plant of about 1,000 workers. This plant voted for the union by a small majority about three years ago, but never succeeded in getting a contract. The company “negotiated” with the union month after month, saying no to every demand. The existing laws only require employers to negotiate; they need not settle. The union filed charges against the company for not negotiating in good faith. By the time these charges were aired and a decision reached, the whole situation had changed to such an extent that the union itself thinks it has lost the majority. The company has the right to have a decertification election every year, in addition to the actual right never to reach an agreement with the union. Only a strike could have won a contract in this case, but the union thought it was not strong enough to mount a successful strike.

UNION organization should follow large-scale growth of industry as day follows night. But there is often a considerable delay between these two economic developments. The existing capital-labor relations in Southern California are comparable in this respect to those which prevailed in the Ohio-Michigan area thirty years ago. The automobile, steel and rubber plants located there first grew apace after World War I while successfully beating off attempts to invade their open shops from 1919 to 1935. The need for union organization became extremely urgent and irrepressible only after a 10-15 year period of extensive industrial growth and employment. Then the CIO forces broke through all barriers and organized substantially everyone in the heavy industries between 1935 and 1940.

A new burst of organization has equally long been overdue in Southern California and makes it a logical field of operation for the AFL-CIO. But the presently planned campaign will run up against heavy obstacles if it makes a serious effort to enroll large numbers of new workers into the unions.

Different From 30s

There are extremely important differences between the eastern industrial areas of the 1930s and the western areas of the 1960s. The CIO movement that began around 1935 was preceded by the worst years of the depression and then the economic revival of 1933, following the government pump-priming measures of the early New Deal. In contrast, Southern California has seen a better than average employment picture, without sharp ups and downs, in the past 15 years. Therefore, the impetus to organize furnished by sharp swings in the economic cycle is absent here. Not all the non-unionized workers are super-exploited and driven to the breaking point, as the workers in the mass production industries of the midwest were in the 1930s.

Secondly, new restrictive legislation such as Taft-Hartley and the Landrum-Griffin Act now hamper union organization efforts and present more problems and more difficult conditions than the absence of such legislation regulating unions 25 or 30 years ago.

Third, the conservative weight of the present top leadership of the AFL-CIO, with its obsequiousness before big business and the government, is a distinct disadvantage, standing in sharp contrast to the fresh, vigorous workers’ leaders that came up out of the ranks to lead the great organizing struggles of the 1930s.

Finally, the industry of this area and the economic structure dependent upon it is the creature of the Cold War program of production of war material. Any serious organizing drive, accompanied by strikes, will be met with loud braying by all the anti-union elements appealing to “patriotism” and the need to keep stoking the “defense” furnace.

THE Kennedy administration has warned that more big strikes will bring new anti-union legislation. Secretary of Labor Wirtz recently threatened the eastern longshoremen with laws that would establish some form of compulsory arbitration. The rulers in Washington issued similar threats in connection with the long strike that shut down the newspapers in New York City.

Before the present organizing drive comes to a successful conclusion the workers concerned will surely have to face a hostile reception from Washington, along with die-hard resistance from their own employers. It is necessary to understand this in advance.

These far less favorable features of the opportunities in Southern California today compared to the CIO centers of the 1930’s do not necessarily add up to insuperable obstacles. But they do indicate that a successful campaign to bring three-quarters of a million new members into the unions will require new methods and policies and not a mere repetition of what was done in the 1930s.

Conditions For Success

There is at least one favorable feature of great importance. The existing union movement far exceeds in numerical strength and financial ability anything available prior to the building of the CIO. With this power as a base, organization efforts could succeed, if properly conducted.

The organizing movement would have to make its strongest appeal around the question of improving the economic position of the workers. This is where the greatest need is to be found and where the unorganized workers most feel the weight of the open shop. In addition, the majority of the working force that the AFL-CIO wants to bring into the unions is low paid by present-day standards.

The drive must mobilize existing unionists and not depend just upon the professional organizing staffs. This would strengthen the campaign considerably by infusing into it the vigor and enthusiasm that it needs, which is unfortunately lacking to a large extent among the professionals.

Minorities Primary

The first place in which the proposed drive should concentrate is among the lowest paid workers in the area, that is, the Negro, Mexican-American and Asian-American workers. There are over one million people of these categories residing in this area.

Efforts to organize among these minority groups would have to be accompanied by a social program for equal rights in all fields. The union movement here, as elsewhere, has not distinguished itself in recent years by fighting for the rights of oppressed minorities. As a result it has lost a considerable amount of its appeal to these sectors. Although there has been a sharp increase in the number of minority peoples who have settled in California in the past ten years, bigger and better living space is the major difference between the scope of discrimination here and the segregated large metropolitan cities of the east. In other respects the patterns of discrimination and segregation are similar to those of New York, Chicago and Detroit.

An entirely new attitude will have to be developed towards anti-labor legislation in the organizing staff and among the workers, both organized and unorganized. The present attitude of the top union leaders of subordinating all their actions to the Taft-Hartley and Landrum-Griffin Acts, if persisted in, will most likely prove to be the strongest weapon in the hands of the anti-union employers.

THESE employers and their government agents will use every law on the books to hamper and defeat attempts to organize. The whole labor movement has to look upon the laws that are designed to discriminate in the employers’ favor as subordinate to the need to bring unionism to all the workers. That is how the sit-down strikers treated the injunctions issue by the government forces arrayed against them in the 1930s.

Cold War Industries

Another field in which new attitudes will have to be developed is in the Cold War industries, where a good deal of the organizing is scheduled to take place. The idea that a strike for union recognition or higher wages is an act of high treason because it “interferes” with government orders must be firmly rejected. The unions must use every available means to educate the public on the real issues: the open shop character of large parts of the aerospace industry; the fact that the employers are in business manufacturing war equipment, not because they are great patriots, but strictly because of the huge profits involved; and the need for union organization by the workers.

The success or failure of the attempt in Southern California hinges basically on the capacity of the unions to provide more adequate solutions to the problems of the workers here, as elsewhere. Obviously the old methods and policies which made no headway for many years do not now hold out any better hope of progress.

If the unions are to revitalize themselves internally and go forward to real growth, as they can and should, they will have to become crusading movements of a broad social character that take up the fight for all the people who live under substandard conditions. This includes the underpaid, the discriminated against, the poorly housed, the elderly and the new generation of youth that cannot find work.

THIS requires a change of such proportions in the present-day unions that it hardly seems realistic to propose it. But the alternative is to keep plodding along, as the unions have for 15 years now, becoming an increasingly weaker factor in American life.

Above all, if Southern California is to be converted from a sanctuary of the open shop into a fortress of unionism, organized labor will not only have to change its organizing methods but its political course. The state AFL-CIO, not very enthusiastically, trails behind the Democratic machine and its governor, “Pat” Brown.

No Help From Brown

As a reward, its officials get a small percentage of well-paying posts in the state administration. But Governor Brown has carefully refrained from lending the slightest encouragement to the recent AFL-CIO organizing drive among the agricultural workers which the growers and banks succeeded in thwarting. He will do nothing to aid the projected campaign in industry.

If the unions of California are to provide a true pattern for America’s tomorrow, they should make preparations to run their own candidates in the state elections who can introduce legislation to strengthen labor’s rights and organizations and benefit all sections of the working people. Until it takes the road of political independence from the big business parties, this will not be the “Golden State” for labor.

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