Honoring the Picket Line (Part I)
Strike Breakers Only Add Fuel to the Fire
By Dave Arnold
While we may think of violent labor struggles as being ancient history, I’m here to tell you different. The bloody struggle I’m talking about took place during a factory strike in 1970. I know because I was there.
I’ve never talked much about the unseemly events that took place on factory grounds in Effingham, Illinois. People who weren’t there probably never had a chance to read about it in newspapers. Factory owners pulled some strings and swept the violent aspects of the strike under the rug. To this day, I expect that officials will deny everything.
At that time, I worked as union carpenter building prefabricated houses. After a few years, I advanced to a more skilled job and reached the top of the salary scale. Things were going well. Labor and management had gone through several contract negotiations that resulted in a reasonably good benefit package.
Then the housing market dropped and the company started making cuts. They quickly started laying off employees. Production dropped to less than half of what it had been. When we thought things couldn’t get much worse, the Teamsters Union contract involving a company that employed truck drivers who delivered the houses came to an end.
Take It or Leave It
The company’s offer to the Teamsters was simple; take a 50 percent cut in pay or lose your job. This was an obvious slap in the face. When labor and management negotiators came to an impasse, labor had no choice but to go on strike. My co-workers and I were members of the Carpenters Union.
We voted not to cross any picket lines. So, the plant shut down. We had anticipated that the company would back down and return to the negotiating table. We were wrong about that and the strike continued.
The Carpenters honored the Teamsters’ picket, but then the company announced they would employ anyone who would cross the Teamsters’ picket line. Within minutes scabs started going in and taking our jobs despite the Teamsters’ efforts to stop them. Tempers flared and violence ensued. Cars owned by scabs got their tires sliced. Windshields were shattered.
When one scab retreated, another one or two would step up and take their place. The company made it known that it was within their power to break two unions, the Teamsters and the Carpenters. They then brought in strike busters. A bad situation got worse.
The strike busters first made their presence known by simply standing aside. It was a show of force. When they were in view of Carpenters or Teamsters, they would display their guns, knives and clubs.
However, when the police were called, the union busters tried to look as innocent as choir boys. To instill more fear and show more force, the company brought in an additional bus load of “security guards” just to fuel the fire.
Bad Movie Tactics
The company’s henchmen went from posturing to bold action when they forced several union members’ cars off the road while they were on their way home. Other union members reported that their houses had been shot at in the middle of the night.
The strike breakers went from posturing to bold action, though they weren’t very original. They probably saw these tawdry tactics in a movie or learned it at union busting school.
The important thing for us was not to show fear, even though we may have been shaking in our boots. At times, I was as scared as I have ever been in my life. But we were fighting for worker’s rights and were determined to stand our ground not matter what.
In my next article (Part II), I will tell of the tactics my union brothers and I used and how the company failed in their efforts. The lessons I learned from that experience have served me well as a member of the Brownstown ESP Association and the Illinois Education Association.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --