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Union Trusting

Unions are the worst way to press for workers' rights -- except for every other method.

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When Billy Joe Jordan helped lead a janitors' strike in 1985, he knew all his members weren't happy -- especially the one who called him at home and threatened to "kick my ass." Jordan's reply: "At least you'll be out here on the picket line to kick my ass."

In one way or another, the five panelists at a Sept. 20 discussion at the Pump House in Homestead, hosted by the Battle of Homestead Foundation, all had similar stories of contending with divided allegiance. Like Jordan, a former union president of Service Employees International Union Local 29 and a pioneer in the "Justice for Janitors" campaign, they were all African Americans who served for decades in the labor movement. In seeking recognition and fair treatment, they told a small but appreciative crowd, they often had to fight the unions at the same time they fought their employers.

Indeed, despite the evils of segregation, there was a certain lament for the loss of black-only labor organizations among the panelists. Chuck Austin, a jazz musician and member of the Pittsburgh Musician's Union Local 60, recalled that the former black-only union, Local 471, "was a fellowship amongst all of us." But when the union merged with Local 60 in 1966, it became "two groups of people [just] paying dues." And now, he lamented, "[W]e don't have anything to appeal to the young people."

Moderator Ray Henderson, a former steelworker and permanent dissident, argued that union leaders "sold out because they want to be part of the bourgeoisie." Union presidents, he contended, grow out of touch with rank-and-file members whose dues pay salaries much greater than the ones they earn. And even though African-American steelworkers settled a class-action discrimination suit against steelmakers in 1974 with union help, Henderson contends the settlement sold out the workers' long-term interest. Echoing his charges in Struggles in Steel, the documentary film he made with Tony Buba, Henderson complained that the union had undermined attempts to get steelworkers a half-billion dollars in reparations. Workers could see that steel "was on its way out," he said, so we wanted reparations." Workers got a few hundred dollars at best.

Perhaps the most eloquent speaker, Nate Smith, was the one who said the least. Smith, who made headlines campaigning for more African-American participation in city construction jobs starting in the 1960s, spoke only a few words before he choked up with tears. While Smith sat silently, an assistant told the audience that Smith had experienced the kind of history that's "not really written down in a book," recounting a story in which Smith and his son attended a ball game at Forbes Field only to have a "white person in the stands [squirt] lighter fluid on his back and [throw] a match at him."

Montgomery, who said he was once told "you're lucky you're still living" after running a campaign against the incumbent officers of the Steelworkers, empathized with Smith's difficulty. "If you have taken on this power structure and tried to change it, you will understand why Nate got choked up. Because they will tell you in no uncertain terms ... that they will destroy you." But for all their faults, Montgomery said, unions were the only leverage most working people had -- and were thus worth fighting for. To change a union, he said, "[Y]ou have to love that union more than they love themselves."

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