James Matles was UE's first Director of Organization. John L. Lewis, the legendary President of the United Mine Workers, once called him the best field organizer he had ever seen.
At UE's 33rd Annual Convention in 1968, Matles explained the reasons behind UE's policy on strike assistance. Drawing on 35 years of organizing experience, he made the following remarks:
...I want to tell you that the subject matter we are talking about right now is probably one of the most fundamental trade union problems facing the American trade union movement.
The real meaning of working people striking has been protituted and corrupted during the past several years. Somehow, the idea has gotten around this land among working people that there is a painless way of striking. A striker doesn't have to picket anymore — he just comes down to the Union to get a weekly check since he is not getting it from his boss. If the Union doesn't give him a check, it's like the company not paying on pay day.
Before the 1967 auto strike was called, everybody kept speculating on what the big strategy was going to be and which of the three companies was going to be struck first. The reason General Motors was not struck was no big strategy. There were 300,000 GM workers and it would cost $6 million each week. The reason Ford was struck was because it was going to cost less money.
The 1967 Ford strike lasted 44 days. When the strike was only four weeks old, the UAW had to call an emergency Convention to pass a $5.00 a week assessment on the entire UAW membership for the duration of the strike.
Each Ford striker got a grand total of about $125 during the 44-day strike.
Thousands of Ford workers got other jobs and after work, once a week, they would come down to the picket line in order to collect their weekly check for $20 to $25 from the Union. Why did they demand their check when they had another job?
The answer is simple.
They were doing the Union a favor by going out on strike. This is what I meant when I said the proud strike tradition of the American trade union movement has been prostituted.
I have been brought up in an altogether different trade union tradition. When the Union releases a striker to get another job during the strike, he is duty-bound to make a substantial contribution to help those who are carrying the load on the picket line.
Can anyone tell me that when a member of our Union goes out for ten, fifteen, or twenty week on strike, as many of our people have done, and he loses $1,500 to $3,000 in pay, that the $20 a week solves his problems in any real way? Or, if the company opens the gate and starts a back-to-work movement to break the strike, does anyone believe that giving each striker $20 a week, no matter what his real needs are, will make the difference between striking and scabbing?
The United Mine Workers of America have never paid out strike benefits of so many dollars a week to anybody who will to the Union a favor by going out on strike.
I remember one of the first discussions [first UE Secretary-Treasurer Julius] Emspak and I had with John L. Lewis in the early days when we had out strikes and we were worried and concerned. He took us in hand and said, "The miner can live on ten dollars a day, when when we had to be can live ten days on a dollar."
That is the way miners were brought up. There were no scabs in those mines and if somebody tried, they didn't give the miners $20 apiece, they gave them a shotgun apiece.
I remember during the Westinghouse strike in 1947 we were sitting in negotiations in Pittsburgh during the fifteenth or sixteenth week of the strike and the company told us that the Sharon Westinghouse plant was ready to break ranks and go back. We recessed the negotiations for the afternoon and called up our Strike Committee in Sharon and asked them to call a meeting for that night at the high school. When our committee arrived at Sharon there were 2,500 strikers packed into that high school.
It was one helluva rip-roaring meeting — it looked like that strike would go on forever.
When the meeting was over, an elderly man and his wife came over to me on the platform. He said, "Son, when you came into this hall, you looked mighty worried. What were you worried about?"
"Well, the company told us that you fellows were about ready to break ranks," I told him.
"Son, we elected you to negotiate in Pittsburgh and if you do your job half as good as we do ours here, we will come out all right. Go back and do your job."
The national strike against Westinghouse lasted 17 weeks. Every striker got the help he needed so that the family was assured of clothing, food, shelter, heat, light, and other necessities of life.
But we don't pay a striker because he was striking as a favor to the Union.
In 1955, we had a second national strike in Westinghouse that lasted four and one-half months, but our Local 107 at the Westinghouse Lester plant continued the strike over its local supplemental for a total of 299 days. Six thousand production and salaried workers kept the plant shut for 299 days without a single scab.
To feed and clothe and shelter those strikers took the combined efforts of the striker themselves, the UE Locals all over the country and the International Union. This was one of the epic struggles in the history of the labor movement and it wasn't done on the basis of twenty-buck-a-week handouts whether a striker needed it or not.
You hear the two delegated from Local 274, Greenfield Tap & Die, report on their thirteen-week strike that just ended. Maybe they spent as much money as would have been spent if they gave everybody $15 to $20 a week. They didn't do it that way. Any striker who needed help had to appear before a committee of the strikers and had to say what his problem was and he got the help that he needed. The Relief Committee made sure that he was not evicted from his home, that the gas and light were not shut off, that there was food on the table, that a pair of shoes was gotten for the kid — if the kid needed a pair of shoes — but he had to stay on the picket line and be active in the strike.
One man may have gotten during the strike five times more help than somebody else, and the third one may not have gotten anything else at all, but that is the way to run a strike — that is the way to run it.
You don't run a strike on a slot machine basis.
The Machinists Union is another one of the outfits that has weekly strike benefits. About five to ten years ago, they got a special 50 cents per capita to set up the Fun. They got another 50 cents for the same purpose and now at this Convention they are asking for another $1.00 increase in per capita for the Strike Fund.
The Machinists Union has been using the Strike Fund as a means of exercising dictatorial control over the Locals. Time and again, the International refused to authorize a strike after the membership overwhelmingly voted in favor of striking. When the International refuses to authorize a strike, it means no strike benefits. In those cases where the International finally agrees to authorize a strike, it has absolute control to decide on what conditions the strike is to end.
Time and again, the rank and file turned down the terms of a strike made by the International, but the membership was forced back to work when the International cut off the payment of weekly strike benefits.
During my years in the labor movement, I was shop steward, I was secretary of a Local Union, I was an organizer of a Local Union — I have had my share of strikes. We hear some super-militants get up on the floor and clamor for a strike a minute. We used to test their militancy by making them show what sacrifices they would make in preparation for a strike.
Before the last GE and Westinghouse negotiations we said to our people, "Don't buy anything on installment credit right now. If you have any overtime, put the damn money aside — you will need it. Don't make any new financial commitments."
Furthermore, what a Local Union should do before negotiations start and while people are still working, if they are serious about taking on the company, they should be willing to substantially build up the Local Strike Fund; they should help themselves before they ask other Locals to help them. We have had Local Unions that had each member put in a day's pay or an hour's pay every week for eight weeks, and you build up your Local Strike Fund.
The International always puts in its share. We put in money consistent with what we can.
I understand the IUE is talking about a great idea. They are going to take GE and Westinghouse on next year by setting up $12 a week strike benefits by increasing the per capita and dues by a dollar a month.
GE and Westinghouse are just shivering in their boots right now. This is going to give GE sleepless nights. If GE and Westinghouse go out on strike, even this great sum of $12 a week will break the IUE strike fund in three weeks.
What is going to decide the outcome in GE and Westinghouse is whether we can get unity; whether we can get it in the way we had it in '46; whether we have a policy of fighting the company; or whether they are going to depend on [AFL-CIO President] George Meany, [U.S. President] Lyndon B. Johnson, or [U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara to help them out. If they do, they will drown and $12 a week won't save them.
So, we say to you, "Yes, have some serious discussions on this question." We have got to have more funds in our Local Strike Funds. Yes, we need more in the District Strike Funds. We are going to have a little more in the National Strike Fund, the per capita is going up on December 1st — 35 cents. Ten cents of that is going into the Defense Fund, which will give us a little more money to help Locals in their strikes.
We are not going to create any illusions among our people. We have to try to handle the strikes in the way the labor movement handled them for generations. Our people have got to know, in the first place, that a strike means sacrifice. Second ,the Union will see that nobody goes hungry and everyone has a roof over his head. This our Union has always done.
I want to wind up with a little story to illustrate a fact about scabs that every strike leader knows. There are those who think that most of those who scab against their fellow workers do so because they are in worse economic straits. This is not so. For every scab who crosses a picket line because he is in great financial trouble, there are ten others doing so because they are money-hungry, selfish, and have never learned the meaning of trade unionism and working-class solidarity.
The 1955 UE Westinghouse strike started in October and lasted until April of 1956. On the day after Christmas, I went out on the picket line in Nuttall with my old friend, George Gibbs, the Local President, who many of you know.
On that day, the first guy crossed the line. He was a bachelor, 62 years old, with 35 years' service. He lived with his mother for many years. He was a guy who could never get enough overtime and on weekends, he tended bar near the plant.
During all the years with the Company, he invested his money in Westinghouse stock. Do you know how much his stock was worth? I'll tell you; it was worth sixty thousand dollars — $60,000 — and he was the first s.o.b. to cross that line.
He crossed it only once.