Union organizing is an important part of the class struggle in terms of taking the fight to the shop floor. It’s a fight that many people, socialists included, do not know where to start. My hope in writing this is that it can be learned from and utilized in building and organizing among unions, especially yellow unions.
Let me start by defining what a yellow union is and how it makes it hard for a union to be eﬀective. A yellow union is a union that is not working in the interests of the worker, but is directly controlled or influenced by the employer. Organizing within a yellow union can be diﬃcult because not only are you up against the employer, but you have to deal with an antagonistic relationship with the union leadership. This can make taking action very diﬃcult, as the leadership will fight you on anything that will make a substantial change in working conditions.
I began my employment as a general worker at a direct mail printing company in 2017, and I learned very quickly how dysfunctional the union that was representing us was, as they took 4 months to accept my application to join. Being a new employee in an environment I’ve never worked in before, industrial printing, I had to learn everything from scratch, especially if I wanted to get involved with the union. I had to learn what the working conditions were, how the shop operated, how management operated, what the union was like, and how they dealt with problems. Any person trying to do any kind of organizing or action, union or not, should be asking questions and listening more than they talk.
Through the process of asking questions and investigation I discovered that the pension was drying up, the union had bargained away our breaks for thirty minutes of overtime, that the bosses were being allowed to openly harass workers and threaten them if they didn’t choose to work more overtime (if you didn’t work 12 hours a day, and work at least 2 weekends a month), and numerous safety violations including unlabeled and open chemical containers, missing guards, and not being in compliance with safety protocols related to washing blanket cylinders while they’re spinning (blanket cylinders are the rubber lined cylinders that transfer ink into the paper), among various other safety hazards we were expected to deal with in the shop.
My experience with organizing there really began when I met an anarcho- syndicalist coworker of mine who was heavily involved with the IWW. When he found out I was a marxist we began talking organizing. At this point I had very little experience with union organizing and direct action, so having someone introduce me
to it by getting me involved in it was a real learning experience with both errors and successes that can equally be learned from.
Our first course of action was to address the abhorrent safety conditions that lead to a high rate of injury in the workplace, create a newsletter for the purpose of agitation, and built ties with our Vietnamese and hispanic coworkers who had often times had their concerns be largely ignored and pushed to the side and looked down upon by management and higher positions on the production side (Our shop has 5 tiers of production workers, general workers on the bottom, lead packers in charge of paperwork and changing plates and blankets as well as doing the job of a general worker, feeders who do register and load the paper into the press, 2nd pressmen who do color and set up the inline that folds and trims the paper, and the 1st pressman who runs the press, lines up the ribbons, and reports directly to the bosses).
We started flying the newsletters anywhere they would be seen, on bulletin boards, in the bathrooms, on the presses, and on tables. The supervisors didn’t like this and started taking down our flyers and gave my coworker who was caught doing it a write up. The union didn’t defend him, and took the side of the employer. This was the first sign of yellow unionism, as nothing said in these flyers was incorrect, and other employees had used these bulletin boards for sports gambling, fundraisers for their children, or even just posting up humorous pictures. The minute they were used as an agitation tool to make the workplace a better and safer environment it became a problem.
The next action we took was to address the lack of guards on the machinery and anything that could be addressed in 15 minutes or less by shutting down any press we were on together with other coworkers who would back us up. This angered the 1st and 2nd pressmen because their production numbers are all that matter to them, and if they’re high then they get special treatment from the bosses, it was no concern to them whether guards were in place, as they weren’t the ones webbing up the paper through the press and putting themselves in direct danger. While they were angry with us, our actions were praised by those who did have to do those kinds of things, the general workers, lead packers, and feeders.
Ultimately management had found out who was shutting the presses down, and that it had been largely led by my syndicalist coworker. They attempted to cut it oﬀ at the head by firing him, and ended up having to settle in court for a wrongful termination lawsuit that awarded him $25,000 dollars, forced the company to actually put the guards into the machines, among other safety equipment like automatic blanket washers that would put them in compliance with safety regulations, but he wasn’t allowed to come back.
This experience ultimately uncovered many contradictions within the union and among the laborers themselves. During the process of firing him, the union ultimately refused to defend him, minus one shop steward, and they again took the side of the company. This was another sign that the union did not represent the interests of the
workers in making the workplace a better and safer environment, but was there to make the workers feel like they had a voice when they didn’t. The only thing we ultimately had was the contract, and if the shop stewards weren’t willing to fight to enforce that contract we wouldn’t even have that.
Another contradiction I found was between the first and second pressmen, who would receive special treatment if they had high numbers and helped supervisors enforce a workplace culture of overwork and hostility, and the bottom three positions, who were involved in the majority of the production process. It was in the first and second pressmen’s immediate interest to side with the bosses for their special treatment.
Ultimately I was able to agitate on these contradictions with my coworkers in the bottom three positions, pointing out how the union was failing to represent them, and the pressmen were actively working against them, despite being union members themselves. I was also able to point out that the actions that my coworkers and I had taken had positive results in terms of fixing some of the safety hazards around the shop. I also had to realize that while we might have been successful to a degree, the fact that my coworker had been fired resulted in other coworkers being scared out of taking action, and becoming alienated from the struggle. Our error in this was acting too big too soon, and in order to have had better results we needed a larger group of people committed to taking action in the workplace.
I took this new information back to the shop floor, speaking with people, listening to what complaints they had, and gauging who was willing to act and who was a company rat. I had to take a step back and observe, plan, and build. When I found out who was reliable and willing to listen I began talking to them about marxism, building workers power, and how we can achieve our goals. To those who were willing to do some reading I passed out basic marxist literature, such as Engels “Principles of Communism” and copies of the manifesto of the communist party. We used the cover of the loud machinery to discuss the literature I had passed out, which was eﬀective because it drowned out our voices for anyone outside of a few feet radius.
From this I was able to form a skeleton crew of a coalition of my coworkers with the most class conscious among them. With this skeleton crew we began our organizing eﬀorts again, agitating on the upcoming contract negotiation. We had once again begun the task of talking amongst our coworkers to discover what their concerns were, and what they wanted was higher pay, and to protect our healthcare plan.
Before this I had never been a part of any kind of contract discussion, so rather than running for the committee, I sat back and observed the interaction between the committee and management. In the meantime, after work was done we got our coworkers together to vent, unwind with a few drinks, and discuss how the contract negotiations were going to which I was able to inject theoretical knowledge where it applied. This process of meeting after work to just discuss work, vent, and hang out had made a lot of the workers who were hostile to me for being an open communist in
the workplace become more open minded about it, understanding that I wasn’t just speaking of ideals and that I had knowledge on the subject at hand. While I wasn’t able to convince everyone to denounce liberalism and join the communist cause, I was able to convince a bunch of them that action had to be taken, and gained a number of people to discuss these ideas with and take action, which grew the ranks of my skeleton crew.
With these people we started talking to people and advocating to vote no unless the contract addressed our pay concerns and protected our benefits. The union leadership and shop stewards had told us to tone down our rhetoric, telling us that militancy in the unions was a dead idea, that we were the highest paid shop in the nation (which was only true because we are one of the few union print shops still left in the United States), and that we should be grateful for what we have. We had enough people to vote down the contract and told the leadership to suck lemons. Management hadn’t seen opposition like that in quite some time according to some of the older people working at the shop, and didn’t have a plan to deal with it, so we ended up winning the highest pay increase in a decade among all positions, when before the 1st and 2nd pressman were the only ones getting raises, protected our benefits, and got a provision to adequately staﬀ presses put into the contract which forced the company to hire more general workers. The most important part of this was that we didn’t lose anything.
Over the course of the next year, the one shop steward that actually stood up for us had quit his job. We had no one enforcing the contract at that point and the union made it worse by making a stooge that rubber-stamped all write ups and allowed the company to break contract, understaﬀ us again, and promote people outside of order of seniority a temporary shop steward until the upcoming election. I had decided it was time for me to run for shop steward.
I began my campaign by having meetings in the back parking lot where I would agitate, sing labor songs for people, and just hang out and build bonds and community with each other. Many of the coworkers I had been talking to and meeting with vouched for me and gave me their support, but a lot of the older guys thought I had lacked the experience necessary to do the job. I ultimately came up short, and ended up losing that first run, leaving the worker with no shop steward that was willing to fight for their interests for at least a year.
In this time I kept up the eﬀorts to agitate among the workers, pointing out how the shop stewards were failing to represent them, the lack of leadership we had, and the need for a change in leadership. I also demonstrated how belligerent the bosses had been towards anyone who wasn’t working 12 hours a day, and giving up their weekends to the company. If you weren’t doing this the supervisors would publicly berate you and twist the arms of the first and second pressmen to do the same.
After looking over the contract, I found a provision that said we didn’t have to work the overtime, we could sign oﬀ for 8 hours and oﬀ the weekends any time, so
long as we worked a “reasonable amount of overtime” with no stipulation on what a reasonable amount of overtime looked like. Going back to the union trading oﬀ our lunch breaks for 30 minutes of overtime I argued to my coworkers that we are working at least two and a half hours of overtime during the normal work week, even more on the weekends. The group of workers I had been working with started signing for 8 hours every day and oﬀ the weekends, and when the bosses and the pressmen started berating us, we just laughed in their faces, saying, “having time oﬀ for yourself and to spend with your family is nice, you should try it.”
Quickly other workers began to take note and started following our example. Because at this point almost everyone was doing it the union had no choice but to back us up. Every write up ended up being tossed out, and if the bosses try to harass us the union actually takes care of it. I know this from experience, the plant manager tried to blackmail me into working overtime by denying my vacation requests even though they we’re submitted well ahead of time. He ended up getting in trouble for it and I got a check for filing a grievance.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought us new challenges. Workers were being laid oﬀ for weeks at at time, and the company was trying to tell us that we couldn’t file for unemployment during this time, which isn’t true, but many of my coworkers didn’t know this. I ended up calling several of my coworkers and lending them a hand in filing for unemployment, and they ended up receiving it like I told them they would. This lead to the company putting us back on the schedule as it cost them money.
The company also was refusing to protect us from covid in the workplace, the union was saying they couldn’t do anything about it either. I organized a sick in, a type of unsanctioned strike where as many workers as we could get called in all at once, on various days of the week so that they couldn’t plan for hiring temp workers. We made our safety concerns known to the bosses, and made sure they understood these call ins had been directly related to it without outright saying it. I ended up getting written up for this, but no one had been fired, and the safety concerns had been addressed within a couple weeks. The company had now been enforcing and providing masks in the workplace, doing temperature checks, and putting a general worker on clean up duty, where they would scrub every surface in the building with alcohol. As a result, no one in the workplace ended up getting covid until the state itself decided to open up.
After all this the next contract negotiation was on the horizon. I ran for the committee, but again lost, which raised questions for me as the guys who won were all company guys, who were not very well liked within the shop. Of all the guys who ran for committee positions, these guys were not the ones who had any kind of popular support at all, leading me to believe the union was rigging these elections, but I had zero proof at that point, just the word of my coworkers who had told me and my crew of activists who they were going to vote for and why. The president of the union had already shown which side he was on in the last contract negotiations, and I knew without a real coalition, not just a skeleton crew, we would be in trouble.
The first thing I did was to continue my meetings after work, inviting as many of my coworkers to join us as I could. The largest group of workers in our shop is the general workers, followed by the lead packers and feeders, and so I focused heavily on organizing among them. The first and second pressmen generally had no interest in working with us. I created a Facebook group in order to keep in contact, discuss things with each other, agitate and take action. Through this we had the makings of a real coalition, built on the largest blocks of workers in the shop, and we voted on what actions we should take and discussed what we wanted from this next contract.
The first contract they oﬀered us was abysmal, oﬀering us a mere 15 cent raise across the board, which was actually a pay cut when inflation is taken into account.
They also wanted to take away our seniority rights and be able to move up who they wanted, when they wanted, which would have the eﬀect of turning workers against each other in terms of competing for a position, and giving the bosses the ability to stifle anyone who spoke to loudly against them by refusing to move them up at all.
They wanted to dissolve the pension completely, put a managements rights clause that ultimately would have busted the union and made our contract useless, make us pay more for our healthcare, and delegate what constitutes unsafe activity to a n agreement between union oﬃcials who had already shown they don’t care about the workers, and management themselves, where the way it was is that if you don’t deem something to be safe then no one can force you to do it. They also wanted to stuﬀ a whole bunch of temps in the workplace and phase out the general worker position, which would have cost the largest portion of workers there to lose their job to what is essentially scabs.
The union president constantly told us that this is the best they could do and heavily backed this proposal. They made our job as organizers easy by putting this terrible contract proposal on the table, and we voted it down immediately. This angered the union president and the contract committee, and they ended up giving us the same proposal numerous times, the only diﬀerence being the raise would have been 30 cents rather than 15, which is still a pay cut. We kept voting no, and ended up going half a year without a contract agreement. During this time, the union president threatened us by saying if we keep voting no they could easily just close the shop, or that they could decide to approve the contract proposal anyways. During the meetings I had gotten into direct shouting matches with the union president arguing that what he was doing was a slap in the face to the workers who had built this company, who do the labor and reminded him that without us there is no company. We ended up voting no after all the threats, and in the end the company ultimately gave in to us and took most of the amendments they wanted out.
We ended up getting the managements rights clause taken out, reinforced our seniority, got a 50 cent raise, which still wasn’t enough but it was better than what they were oﬀering, we protected the pension so that older workers would be able to retire in peace, kept the safety rules how they were, and had amended it to say that temps could only make boxes and pile boxes onto pallets, and if they didn’t have the temps to do it a general worker could do it for only 3 hours maximum, and after that the pressman could decide to shut down the press. After we had successfully defeated the
union busting proposal that they wanted to shove down our throats I had many of the workers, including the older ones, coming up to me thanking me and the coalition I had helped to build in the work that we did, and for being so vocal, and that I had their support.
My next goal was to get a shop steward in that actually represented the worker, as elections were coming up again. I decided to run again as many of my coworkers had told me it was time for a change in leadership, and after seeing how the union leadership acted during the last contract negotiation who could possibly blame them. I ended up winning the election, and the former shop steward handed me the paperwork to sign and turn in to the union hall, saying I had the job, congratulations. The next day I went to turn in the paperwork, and the union president was covering the woman at the desk. I handed him the paperwork, to which he turned ghost white, and accepted it. However, the next week the union had announced a whole new election, and this angered a lot of the people at the shop. I had many of my coworkers come up to me saying they were going to vote for me, and even the guys that didn’t agree with me said they were going to vote for me out of principle because they saw it as unfair. It had become blatantly obvious that they were attempting to rig it against me.
The election passed and as expected they had rigged it against me, and one of the supervisors nephews was put in the position. The bosses immediately started watching me like a hawk, writing me up for little things, and threatening my job at the shop. My response was to become essentially the perfect worker, double checking all my work, and never calling in. Meanwhile in secret I utilized and communicated with the coalition that had been formed earlier to continue to act in the workplace despite me not being able to be as visibly present. They ended up getting the safety commission revamped with monthly safety meetings and better safety equipment.
Despite me losing the shop steward election, I had won something else that was much more valuable to me than the union position. I had gained the trust of my coworkers to be able to stand up for them, and did it as an open communist, proving that it is possible to win the minds of the masses and have them stand with you. Many of them come to me to answer union related questions, and often times I’m requested to represent them in the place of the actual shop steward. They trust me to stand up for their interests, and not only me but in the coalition of workers that we had formed together to stand up for our own interests better than the union could as it stands, solidifying it as an organ of dual power within the workplace.
It took me 5 years of constant building, talking with my coworkers, acting in the workers interests in the face of an uphill battle to accomplish what was done there, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. Its tough work, but ultimately a rewarding experience and if I had to do it all again I would do it in a heartbeat. I have trust in my fellow workers here, that even if I was fired, that they now have a tool to actually fight back, and I know that they would use it. Let this be something that can both inspire you to organize in the labor movement in the face of adversity, and show that it is indeed possible to fight back and win as a worker.