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Steve Early

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Does Labor Need Another Wimpy?

Posted: 02/21/11 10:06 AM ET

One of the great mysteries of American labor four decades ago -- for those of us first encountering its then-dominant culture of blue-collar machismo -- was how anyone known as "Wimpy" (or "Wimp" for short) could become president of an AFL-CIO union. In the militant 1970s, a moniker like that was not a great boon to getting elected shop steward in many workplaces. Patrick Halley's new authorized biography of William Winpisinger (called Wimpy, of course) shows how the International Association of Machinists (IAM) leader transcended his anomalous nickname during a colorful 41-year career. By the time Winpisinger retired in 1989, no one in the top ranks of labor seemed less like J. Wellington Wimpy, the cowardly comic strip pal of Popeye.

The IAM leader was, instead, a very unusual profile in political independence, whose example is worth recalling in 2011. His outspoken criticism of another disappointing Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, stands in sharp contrast to the tabby-cat role that labor leaders seem to be playing at the Obama White House today, no matter how much their members get kicked around on trade deals, health care reform, workers' rights, deficit reduction, or business-friendly appointments. When Carter let unions down on labor law reform and other legislative priorities in the late '70s, Winpisinger wasn't afraid to organize within the Democratic Party to challenge him from the left. "To me," he told an IAM conference in 1978, "President Carter is through. He's a weak, vacillating, and ineffective President."

The AFL-CIO was headed, at the time, by George Meany, an octogenarian cold warrior. As Halley reports, "Wimpy was disgusted by what he viewed as Meany's capitulation to Carter's weakness on labor issues." He became a leader of "the dump Jimmy Carter and dump George Meany forces." In 1980, he backed an ill-fated presidential primary run against Carter by Ted Kennedy who was, perceived by many, as being more liberal and labor-friendly. Now, thirty-one years later, some Obama supporters are so disillusioned that a few have even called for a Kennedy or Gene McCarthy-style protest candidacy against Obama next year.

Before labor's alienation with Carter reached that stage, Wimpy urged the AFL-CIO to build more active alliances with civil rights groups, feminists, religious leaders, environmentalists, and consumers. When Meany balked at this approach, the IAM worked with the Citizens Labor Energy Coalition (CLEC) to fight Carter's proposed deregulation of natural gas prices. (In 1978 -- the year labor law reform went down to defeat in a Senate filibuster after getting "lukewarm support" from the White House -- "Carter's real number one legislative priority" was an energy package that included deregulation.) By 1979, Dan Rather was introducing Wimpy to 60 Minutes viewers as "the only card carrying radical" on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. "Where older colleagues shied away from the media spotlight, Wimpy basked in it," Halley writes. "Where more cautious labor leaders were still cowed by the stigma of being called a 'communist' and went to great lengths to avoid any hint of socialism, Wimpy proudly claimed the socialist label."

A card-carrying labor radical who outed himself on national TV today would be quite a target for Glenn Beck and his crowd (who see reds under the bed in SEIU and other unions when, in fact, real left-wingers are pretty hard to find there). Union leaders with a less conservative membership base than Winpisinger's wouldn't think of using the "S" word in public now. In fact, SEIU's "president emeritus," Andy Stern, even wanted to abandon welfare state liberalism. In his 2006 book, A Country That Works, Stern dismissed the New Deal, and its accompanying regulatory regime, as historically irrelevant to the challenges facing workers in the 21st century. (Stern, of course, failed to foresee the Wall Street collapse just two years later that quickly brought New Deal ideas roaring back to life, albeit only briefly and in watered-down form inside the Beltway.)

The irony of Winpisinger being a far bolder champion of business regulation, Pentagon budget cutting, nuclear disarmament, and economic conversion than almost any male labor leader today, active or retired, becomes apparent in Halley's book. On his way up, Wimpy was very much a product of the IAM's insular business union culture; he actually made his bones as an FBI helper during the McCarthy era. Winpisinger's career began inauspiciously in Cleveland, where he dropped out of high school. After serving in World War II, he became an auto mechanic, then an IAM local officer, and "Grand Lodge" organizer and rep. In the early 1950s, he assisted raids on the United Electrical Workers (UE) and fingered "Communist infiltrators" in IAM shops. As late as 1976 -- when he was serving as national V-P of the Machinists and about to become its president -- Wimpy warned about the "motley crew of small splinter groups" spawned by the New Left that were still trying to "infiltrate a few union halls" and make a "nuisance of themselves."

Despite his lack of formal education, Winpisinger had what Halley calls a "restless intellectual talent," uncommon in the U.S. labor movement. It enabled him to embrace new ideas and people, rethink old organizational positions and take the political risks necessary to push a broader social agenda on behalf of his own members and other workers. Soon, he was defending one prominent New Left alumna, Heather Booth, against virulent red-baiting by Lane Kirkland, the AFL-CIO apparatchik who replaced Meany in 1979.

Kirkland was trying to discredit the CLEC, the first of many progressive formations funded by the IAM, including Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Winpisinger pushed back hard against AFL-CIO conservatism, at home and abroad. He flouted the AFL-CIO's attempt to ban U.S. union contact with Communist-led countries by traveling to Cuba and the Soviet Union to discuss issues related to trade, labor, and world peace, while simultaneously criticizing KGB treatment of Russian dissidents. "There's no reason in the world organized labor has to be the biggest hawk in the country," he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Lane Kirkland is worse than George Meany."

Unlike Kirkland's inner-circle of right-wing social democrats (who backed U.S. intervention in Central America and other Reagan Administration mis-adventures), Winpisinger's brain trust included Booth, Barbara Shailor (who became a top IAM staffer), Dick Greenwood (his longtime speechwriter and political muse), and activists from Michael Harrington's Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (SANE)

As an IAM-hired biographer, Halley veers off into hagiography here and there. (His previous book is called On the Road with Hillary, an account of his nine years spent as an advance man for the former presidential spouse and U.S. Senator from New York.) The less valorous episodes in Wimpy's career, like the 1981 PATCO strike, are downplayed. The 12,000 air traffic controllers fired by President Reagan needed some real solidarity and risk-taking by other unions, particularly those in the airline industry. "Unlike Kirkland, Wimpy made his sympathy for the strikers clear: 'I expect our people to act like trade unionists [and] not cross a picket line if they confront one.'"

As former head of the IAM's airline division, this was a union constituency that Winpsinger knew well; he had personally negotiated many airline contracts. Yet there was little serious effort made to engage "the 40,000 ramp workers, mechanics, and maintenance people" covered by them, without whom "there would be no airline flights." The IAM joined the pilots and flight attendants on the sidelines, shifting the blame for everyone's impending defeat onto PATCO members who "failed to build public support for their action" or "do the spade work necessary with their fellow trade unionists." It was a cop-out with lasting consequences.

One doesn't have to be a Wimpy-worshiper -- and there are many quoted in the book -- to appreciate that his union presidency was still better than anyone else's in the IAM before or since. Wimpy is well worth reading at a time when his brand of progressive, blue-collar iconoclasm is pretty rare, in the Machinists and other unions -- although Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association does a pretty good job of keeping the Wimpy tradition alive.

Other top-level labor figures, like Rich Trumka, no longer speak out about curbs on military spending, nuclear weapons, or America's ruinously expensive foreign wars, the way Wimpy did in his heyday. (Trumka is now partnering with the Chamber of Commerce on "job-creation," something it's hard to imagine Wimpy ever doing.) The idea that factories should be converted to socially useful -- and less environmentally destructive -- forms of production has caught on, in new form, as part of the "Green Jobs" movement. But economic conversion of military to civilian production, as bravely advocated by Winpisinger thirty years ago, is rarely on the radar screen. As a result, members of the IAM, UAW, IUE-CWA, and other manufacturing unions now cling desperately to any remaining unionized employment in plants sadly dependent on Pentagon contracts like GE's big aircraft engine factory in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Once one million strong, the IAM is now well on its way to becoming a union half that size. Its ranks have been decimated by automation, free trade, overseas out-sourcing, deregulation (in the airline industry) and de-unionization of manufacturing generally. What Winpisinger called "the delusion that defense spending creates secure jobs" is little disabused by any high-ranking industrial unionist today. The current Machinist president, Tom Buffenbarger--who comes from a GE plant where the UE was ousted--never met a missile system he didn't like. (Although he has been outspoken enough in his own criticism of Obama to get himself excluded from a recent White House meeting with other labor leaders.)

In contrast, when Wimpy got an angry letter in 1983, from a McDonnell Douglas machinist who was critical of his membership in SANE, the IAM president politely rebutted the worker's contention that "without defense work, we would not have jobs for our families." He supplied the relevant facts and figures about the relative job-creating impact of different forms of federal spending and argued, in his return letter, that a "peacetime economy" was far more desirable than one organized around endless preparations for war. "The continuing build-up of more and more and evermore implements of mass destruction is suicidal, and I intend to go on saying so," he pledged. And, indeed he did until the day he left office, under his own steam, in 1989. He died eight years later, at age 73, leaving behind political memories that grow fonder the more present day labor leaders stray from his path.


Steve Early spent 27 years as a Boston-based organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is author of Embedded With Organized Labor and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor, just published this month by Haymarket Books.