No More Social Clubs–Thoughts on the Steelworkers

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the groundbreaking announcement of potential collaboration between Mondragon and the US Steelworker’s Union. The press conference occurred just as, Bernard, an author on this blog and the host of Jasecon posted some thoughts about the role of Mondragon in US Development on this site. The announcement set a lot of us into action. Andrew McLeod posted some follow-up work while he was in the Land of Steel. I waited to write about this because I just wasn’t sure what to make of the whole thing.

During the press conference my thoughts drifted back to my first experience with unionized industrial workers. I spent a lot of my high school time in a group called the Toledo Sub-Mariners. It was a group of scuba divers dominated by autoworkers and other factory folks. It was an odd spot for the son of a doctor and nurse from the suburb of Ottawa Hills. Yet there I was. They told me stories of factory life. How scabs tended to be “accident prone”, the importance of solidarity and labor unions. One told me of the time that the managers at Davis-Besse, a nuclear power plant, found out that he dove and asked him to do some underwater electrical repair. He asked what was in the water. They said it was safe, but wouldn’t tell him. He refused the job and if he hadn’t had a union, he would have lost his job. The early ’80’s were a rough time in Toledo (as they are today). Don showed up at a meeting and announced his retirement. He was 57 and had 30 years in with American Motors (now Chrysler). He showed up to work and was given a broom. With 30 years seniority, he was back to doing the first job he was hired to do. Such is the life of the industrial worker in the United States.

My next experience was just a few years later. I had left Toledo and was a reporter for The Daily Cardinal-the older student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was also a steward for the Memorial Union Labor Organization–an independent industrial union representing student workers at the UW’s student union. I reported and participated. I have never had as an electrifying moment as when we all stood and sang the anthem of Labor: Solidarity Forever! It was a great conference. Nurses from Buffalo, NY spoke of their successful union drive. There were workshops on organizing, grievances, and collective bargaining. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union were present.I forget the name of the keynote speaker, but during his talk, he spoke to those of us from the academic world. He said that the workers in the factories need to make common cause with the students. He then said that the students need to realize that there role is to support the unions from outside (put pressure on the politicians and the owners). “We don’t need you in the factories like what happened in the sixties.” I wasn’t quite sure of the history, but I got the message. They were perfectly capable of organizing themselves and wanted our support, but really didn’t want us telling them how to do it.

Ah, back to the present day. The press conference seemed quite devoid of “press” except for the people from Dollars and Sense and bloggers such as Andrew and myself. The questioning came from the federations, academics, and NCBA. It kind of felt like an alien spacecraft had landed and we curious humans (who knew a lot about aliens) were trying to figure out what was going on and how we might get to be a part of it.

I was happy when Leo Gerrard, the President of the International Steelworkers’ Union stated that he wasn’t interested in creating another “social club.” It was clear from his presentation that the Steelworkers were in this to create a future for themselves, their members, and their country. I know that Mondragon doesn’t mess around. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t serious about investment. Gerrard made the statement that caused my little flashback. One of the participants asked how they (we) could help. Gerrard simply said that the USW and Mondragon would need several months to talk to each other and then would call a meeting for “allies and friends.” I don’t know if anyone else got the message, but it was “Thanks for the offer, but we know what we are doing and when we want your help, we’ll give you a call.”

So that is where I sit. I think that the Mondragon Co-op knows how to start worker co-operatives. They create about 30 a year and have been doing this for over 50 years. The Steelworkers know how to organize workers–they organized in 1937 and fought the “goons and ginks, the company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raids” (as the great Woody Gutherie sang). I don’t know if they need a bunch of middle-class over-educated kids from the ‘burbs telling them how to run their show.

I would love nothing more than to be a part of this historic movement, but I figure that I already am a part of it. The critical mass that makes worker ownership a viable option today (not the ESOP scam) has happened because of the work that we have all put into our co-ops to make them successful. While I would love to get a call from President Gerrard, there are plenty of things for worker co-operators to be doing. We need to build our Peer Technical Assistance Network. We need to continue to beef up our infrastructure. We need to continue to raise our profile. We need to build the US Federation.

The Steelworkers and “the Mondragon”* may be the sexy new kids on the block, but after 20 years in the worker co-operative movement, I’ve come to realize that it worth staying focused on the projects before me instead of veering off to the newest thing. Mondragon and the Steelworkers have both been around, organizing industrial workers, since before I was born. They will likely be doing it long after I am gone.

I welcome Mondragon to the US. I welcome the Steelworkers to the worker co-operative movement. It is a great moment to see the worker co-operative movement and the industrial labor movement join forces. I hope that they know about this great property in Janesville, WI that they can probably get for a song! I hope that they also know that an accessible, alternative fuel hybrid taxicab could be a great investment. But I’ll keep the voice in my head from that Labor Notes Conference. I’ll focus on supporting them and do my best to avoid instructing them.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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