- We Are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing by Dana L. Cloud
“In order to change,” retired machinist Keith Thomas warned communications professor Dana L. Cloud, “union bosses would have to give up power. This isn’t going to happen. They run unions like they belonged to them, and they should have been running unions like they belonged to the rank and file” (169). Thomas’s frustrations should hardly raise the eyebrows of labor scholars, politicians, or voters, who are well aware that workers have sometimes found themselves angrier at their leaders than at their employers. Indeed, pioneering New Labor historians spent much of the 1980s and 1990s blaming business unionism, bureaucratization, routinized bargaining, and a one-sided compact with the Democratic Party for the decline of American trade unionism.
Only recently has a new cohort reconsidered this so-called postwar compact. These specialists contend that there was no labor-management accord. Conflict over union, and therefore labor, rights extended through the postwar period, when fights more commonly broke out during elections, congressional hearings, and National Labor Relations Board investigations. This scholarship has made clear that there was an outright war over labor’s legitimacy, which was intimately connected to managerial intent to bargain in bad faith, executive eagerness to shift production outside the unionized steel belt, and business support for the modern conservative movement. This more recent work has hence proved far more sympathetic to union leaders who made drastic concessions even before the 1970s economic crisis.
Cloud comes at the question of who (or what) is to blame for the labor movement’s downward trajectory from the field of communications, which “has largely neglected labor and workers’ issues and consequently overestimates the accomplishments of communication in determining workplace relationships and experience” (176). We Are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing instead delves deep into the words, dissident organizations, and personal experiences of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IMW) at Boeing’s Wichita, Everett, and Puget Sound factories. Cloud aims to be both a scholar and an activist in these pages. She asserts that her careful study of rank-and-file demands for genuinely democratic unionism highlights a pathway forward for working people and their unions in an era when many Americans seem resigned (if not outright willing) to protect shareholders, executives, and profits, not the 99 percent.
Much of this argument rests on the storied 1995 strike at Boeing. For years, employees found themselves frustrated with both managers and union leaders, who seemed complicit in making cuts, restructuring decisions, and pursuing worker-management partnership schemes that proved injurious to Boeing employees. Frustrated members began forming dissident caucuses in the late 1980s. These insurgents [End Page 97] contended that the entrenched IMW leadership stood in the way of defending their rights and exerting their collective power over management. Organizing paid off in 1995, when Unionists for Democratic Change, the “New Crew” (also called “Rank and File”), and Machinists for Solidarity inspired the larger membership to overwhelmingly reject the bargaining team’s recommendation that workers accept Boeing’s second contract offer. The forty-seven-day strike thus wore on for another three weeks, time enough for executives to come back with a much better offer. Yet Cloud submits the real victory “was increased union awareness and solidarity” (115), not just against the company but also against “bureaucratic sluggishness on the part of the union” (116).
Cloud has good evidence to back up these claims. We Are the Union has rich, meaty block quotes from dissident unionists, less-militant members, and IMW leaders. Historians could (and should) turn to this book to get a palpable sense of the rank-and-file’s disdain for concession bargaining (especially in profitable years), distrust of managerial training programs, disregard for corporate team project initiatives, fear of layoffs, sense of gender and racial discrimination on the part of both union leaders and Boeing managers, and conviction that IMW was a “company union” led by “Boeing managers...