From the July-August 1953 issue of the Western Socialist
(EDITORIAL NOTE: A wildcat strike is a work. stoppage which has taken place in violation of a contract with management, or which has not received official sanction from the authority – usually the International Executive Board – established under the Union’s constitution. The author of this article has participated in dozens of wildcats in the automobile industry, and thus writes from first-hand observation.)
The workers mill around in small groups. A buzz goes through them rapidly. The huge steel-cutting machines lapse into silence. The conveyor lines halt as if struck dead by some unseen hand. Everything is at a standstill. A wildcat strike is being born. The workers await its delivery.
A chief steward has been fired. Or perhaps the line has been speeded up, and the workers walk off in protest. Or perhaps . . . rumors . . . facts . . . confusion . . . unrest . . .
A group of men push their way through the workers. These are the committeemen, perhaps accompanied by local union officials. They listen to the workers’ complaints. Go back to work. We will settle this through the regular grievance procedure.
Some of the workers nod in agreement. But they are pulled back into the circle by those who voice defiance and protest. We have followed the grievance procedure before and got nothing. This time we are going out.
The officials try another argument. The walkout has not been approved by the International Executive Board of the union. The workers answer: Hell, we voted 98% to strike three months ago, and the International still hasn’t authorized the strike. We’re hitting the bricks.
The situation is getting beyond the control of the local union officers. They deal one last card. They tell the workers: you will be violating the Taft-Hartley Act. The union will be sued, its treasury wiped out. This has even less effect than the other arguments. Washington is a long way off to these workers. Their immediate grievance looms larger. Suddenly someone cries what are we waiting for. Let’s go. Survey the scene as if you were seated in a high crane with a view of the entire shop.
Large knots of workers formed here and there in the various departments begin to break up into small knots. The workers are arguing, discussing. Then they begin to leave the plant.
They merge like so many rivulets into small streams, then into large rivers, until finally all are swept out through the gates in a mighty flow. The company enters the scene. Telegrams are sent out to the workers. Return to work or be considered as having voluntarily quit your jobs. Still the workers remain away, in sullen defiance.
Momentarily the company has lost control of the workers. The union goes into action. A mass meeting is scheduled. The “big guns” from the International union scold the workers. They spend most of the meeting, talking, repeating, talking, and repeating. Very little time is left for the rank and file. When a rank and filer speaks, his limit his five minutes, while each International man speaks for half an hour, often longer.
The International tells the men: you will lose your jobs. The plant will move out of town. Other companies will get the work. The arguments have a telling effect. Thousands of workers have come to this meeting for one purpose only: to vote to go back to work. The motion is made and passed to return to work and “continue negotiations.”
The militants who argued in favor of continuing the strike are defeated, the conservatism of the workers prevail. On this the International office had pinned their hopes to end the stoppage.
Wait. All is not over. The men return, but the following week other wildcats take place. The International officers apply a heavy foot. An administrator is placed over the Local union. Bargaining continues with the company, but the administrator has the final words on everything. The democratic right of the workers to make their own decisions has been abolished.
Despite this dictatorship over their affairs, the workers continue to strike. The “instigators” are fired. The union remains silent, in approval of the company’s action. Gradually the strikes fade out until the administrator leaves. Then the process begins all over again. . .
Not all wildcat strikes follow this pattern. The one above – an actual situation which took place in the auto industry recently – enables us to view a wildcat strike from beginning to end.
Some strikes never reach the point where the workers leave the plant. They are in the nature of sit-downs, where the workers stay at their machines without turning a hand, or let jobs go by until a jam piles up at the end, and the line must shut down. Still other actions take the form of slow-downs. The workers let every other job on the line go, or if running a machine reduce the speeds and feeds. They are working, but not producing their quotas. Both the company and the union terms this a strike.
Why do these wildcats take place? What significance do they have toward developing the thinking of the workers?
To some these wildcats are the work of an “irresponsible few,” of a “small dissident element,” or even of “Communists.” This is the attitude, not only of union leaders, but also of many workers.
There is no use denying the facts. In certain isolated cases a few individuals might agitate for a wildcat and succeed in bringing it off, but can a few lead thousands, if the conditions are not present for these thousands to be led? What becomes of the “communist” arguments when wildcats break out in plants where there are no known “communists” and where the participants are all “loyal American workers”?
Origin of Wildcats
The point is that the wildcat walkouts, the sit-downs, the slow-downs have their origin in the economic system we have today. To allege the cause of these works stoppages to “leaders,” and not to conditions, is to cover up the real nature of capitalism. Labor leaders do it from ignorance or from plan – because of their belief in and collaboration with the capitalist system – but the workers do it out of sheer ignorance of the real conditions.
In a system of society such as we have now where one class works for wages and another class reaps the profits from their labor, a struggle goes on continually between the two classes over the fruits of production.
Socialists call this the class struggle. This struggle embraces a multitude of matters. It takes place over wages and hours at work. It takes place over working conditions, safety, speedup, etc. It takes place over firings, penalties for being late and absent, even over the location of a time clock.
The outlets of this struggle are numerous and varied. Already we have mentioned the wildcat, the sit-down, and the slow-down. Other forms exist. When the worker reaches up and flips the counter on his machine a few dozen times without increasing his production, when he turns in production figures beyond what he actually produced, when he spends half an hour beyond that time necessary to perform his biological functions, he is engaging in a struggle against those who exploit him. When he tightens up a nut, takes it off, and then puts it on again to kill time on the line, he is carrying on a struggle against his capitalist employers.
The wildcat strike is just another manifestation of the class struggle. When workers have grievances over speed-up, these grievances arise out of the fact that a class is seeking to make more profit from them. When workers have grievances for higher wages, these grievances stem from the fact that the workers must struggle for their standard of existence against the class which seeks to keep wages down.
The wildcat takes place when the workers feel that the grievance procedure is too slow, when on-the-spot action is necessary, or when they have no confidence in the ability of their leaders to solve their grievances through the regular procedure.
The labor leaders may clamp down hard, may place one administrator after another over one local union after another, but the conditions of capitalism continuing, wildcats are bound to result. Not a day passes that a wildcat does not take place in some shop throughout the country. Still the union leaders are foolish enough, or ignorant enough, to believe they can suppress the class struggle. Even Hitler could not stop strikes under his dictatorship, nor as recent events in East Germany showed, could the armored tank divisions of the Red Army.
What is the political significance of these wildcat strikes? One school of thought in the working class political movement sees these wildcat strikes as bona fide rebellions, not only against the labor leaders, but against the capitalist system itself. This school views the wildcats as the beginnings of a real rank and file movement which will eventually result in the workers throwing out the union bureaucrats, taking over the factories, establishing workers’ councils and ultimately a “workers society” based on these councils.
If one reads the newspapers – and at one time half of Detroit’s auto workers were idle because of wildcats – he might gain the impression that a tremendous political movement of the workers was under way. To one directly involved in these struggles, and in daily contact with the workers, another, more accurate, picture enfolds itself.
These wildcats are purely economic struggles on the part of the workers. They have a grievance arising out of the conditions of their work, instinctively they bring to bear their only weapon, withdrawal of their labor.
For a brief period the workers are aroused. They assail their union leaders in no uncertain terms. But they learn nothing of the role of these union leaders in support of capitalism because they do not understand the society under which they live. In a few days, after the wildcat is over, the workers return to their routine thinking.
A Lever to Emancipation?
Another school of thought believes these wildcats can be used as a lever to push the workers along a political road, towards their “emancipation.” How is this possible if the workers do not understand the political road, and are only engaging in economic struggles? The answer is that “leaders in-the-know” will direct the workers, much as a Seeing Eye Dog guides a blind person.
But these leaders can also lead the workers in the wrong direction, toward the wrong goals (nationalization and state capitalism), as the workers later find out to their sorrow.
The socialist approach of education – rather than the non-socialist approach of leadership – is much better.
Through education it can be pointed out to the workers that wildcat strikes arise out of the nature of capitalism, but that they are not the answer to the workers’ problems. These economic struggles settle nothing decisively because in the end the workers still wear the chains of wage slavery. It is the political act of the entire working class to eliminate the exploitative relations between workers and capitalists which can furnish a final solution.
Is not this giving leadership to the workers, to point these things out? In a sense it is, but it is a leadership of a different type. It is not the non-socialist leadership of a minority which knows (or thinks it knows) where it is going over a majority which does not know where it is going, and merely follows the minority.
It is the socialist leadership of educating workers to understand the nature of both capitalism and socialism, so that, armed with this understanding, the workers themselves can carry out the political act of their own emancipation.
The non-socialist leadership is based on lack of understanding among the workers. The socialist leadership is based on understanding among the workers.
This is the lesson of the wildcat strike and all other outbursts of class struggle among the workers. These struggles can be used as a means of educating workers to the real political struggle – socialism. They should not be used as a means to gain leadership over the workers, or to lead them along a political path they do not understand.