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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

The Importance of Rank-and-File, Bottom-Up Unionism

from the Oct. 12, 2022 Bulletin

unions international solidarity economy & economic reform

Frank Martin del Campo’s “rank and file” mantra grows from his formative experience as a founder of the R & F Caucus in the Retail Clerks union, an effort that transformed his local into a democratic and militant one. At Solar Turbines, he would later found an R & F Machinist Action Committee to stop black/brown discrimination. That groups fighting spirit revitalized a demoralized local. And both those efforts represented just the beginning! Now living in Oakland, Frank Martin del Campo maintains his roots in Jalisco México. He co-chairs the México Solidarity Project/Labor Notes SINTTIA Support Committee.

Why did your parents come to the US? Did they influence your political development?


My grandparents lived in rural Jalisco, where armed rebellions devastated the countryside after the 1910 revolution and scattered my family. My father would be on the first train to the US in 1942 when the bracero program started. But he deserted after getting disgusted with topping beets and broke his “contract” with the company. Maybe I get my refusal to put up with exploitative conditions — for any worker — from my father’s disgust.


In 1967 I was drafted. I was patriotic, in officer training, and about to go to Vietnam. But then I met returning vets, and they turned me around 180 degrees. I became anti-war, discovered Chicanismo, and became a revolutionary nationalist. But the labor movement became where I found my home.


You became a rank-and-file activist, right?


I cut my teeth working at Safeway. In 1972, I helped found the Rank and File Organizing Committee in my 10,000-member local, After a few years, we succeeded in a complete take-over of the union leadership. Our platform included international issues. We demanded, for instance, no US intervention in Angola. Our victory didn’t sit well with the union bureaucracy, and they put our local into receivership.


After 18 months we won the right to another election — and swept into office again! But the union office and the staff had become our focus, and we failed to stay rooted in the rank and file, one of my biggest lessons.


And then you worked in auto, right?


By then I had become a member of a left organization that sent me to work in auto. I got a job at GM’s South Gate plant near Los Angeles in about 1977. At that time the powerful UAW ran the plant. We workers didn’t know who the plant manager was, but we sure knew our union rep. 


Our chief steward Sal Astorga walked through the plant like a military general in full UAW regalia. We all trembled beneath his feet. Everyone knew his power and influence in the plant, and he was also a heavy hitter on the national bargaining team. We didn’t fear him. We loved him. Everyone knew he was our guy. Period. 


What’s happened to auto workers in the US since that time?

My GM South Gate plant shut down and moved to Oklahoma in 1983, where the UAW had little strength. In the 1980s union membership began dropping like a rock, soon down a third from the 1.5 million UAW members in 1979. Reaganomics hit us hard. Reagan stopped honoring the unwritten labor contract of the 1950s: In an expanding economy, US labor made a pact with the devil, trading union militancy for a promise of a share of the spike in corporate profits. Then labor found itself caught with its pants down when the devil collected his due. 

The UAW, in the new climate, started to make concessions. The first: making the probation period for new workers 90 instead of 30 days. Concessionary contracts would become the norm. Drastic cuts in union power meant drastic cuts in benefits. No more Sal Astorgas. Kiss-ass climbers out for themselves took the place of the likes of Sal.


Then, in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. This opened the borders so that US auto companies became “free” to go further south, down to México, for even cheaper labor and unions easy to buy off. UAW membership plummeted again. By the end of the decade, membership had dropped to less than 700,000. Today, the UAW has under 400,000 members in the US, many of them not in auto, but in health care, gaming, and universities.

We saw a huge upsurge against “free trade” in Seattle in 1999. But labor backed off. Why?


The sax! President Clinton got out his sax, and union leaders sat down to listen. Labor has been too close to the Democratic Party for its own good.


We’ve also seen the bureaucratization of the labor movement, with a shift to a focus on national negotiators and staffers rather than on educating and mobilizing the rank and file. Things start falling apart when a disconnect between the leaders and the base starts growing.

Today, you’re co-chairing the joint México Solidarity Project/Labor Notes México labor support committee, with a focus on auto. Why auto?


Auto has become the major industry and a key economic driver in all three USMCA countries. And in México auto ranks as the sector most on fire with independent union organizing, with five major recent rank-and-file victories and counting. The wage and benefit increases these new unions win can begin to reverse the race to the bottom.


Mexican workers also understand internationalism. Workers at the GM plant in Silao, before they won their own battle, engaged in support actions for striking John Deere UAW workers in the United States. We see real break-through possibilities in the auto sector.


Internationalism has largely disappeared from what we hear from labor. What can be done to change that?


We hear more about international labor issues from fair-trade folks than from our labor leaders. It’s great to address international trade issues as opportunities to push for labor rights around the globe. But we have no substitute for democratic worker-to-worker and democratic union-to-union relationships. 


US labor unions too often confine their vision to their own shop, union, or country, rather than raising their eyes to see the big picture. Labor can’t stop the shedding of jobs through “protectionism” and blaming foreign workers. We can only improve our jobs here in the US by fighting to improve the jobs of workers overseas.


Solidarity must begin at the base. Many labor leaders talk like lawyers — and timid ones at that! To mobilize workers, we need the raw, unfiltered speech of conscious militants who come from the rank and file. This will always be crucial, for creating not a spontaneous movement, but one based on class consciousness and an understanding of capitalism. Democratic unionism will also be critical, but also always the floor and not the ceiling.


You emphasize worker-to-worker solidarity. What can we do?


Our Committee supported the Mexican independent union SINTTIA by asking local unions and other community groups to write to GM CEO Mary Barra to ensure fair contract and representation elections. Then Labor Notes brought one of SINTTIA’s rank-and-file organizers to speak to the thousands of rank-and-file workers at its 2022 national conference. We made sure that Mexican activist Israel Cervantes met the folks most important to SINTTIA’s struggle, particularly folks in the UAWD — the Unite All Workers for Democracy — the UAW’s progressive wing.


We pushed for the UAW to invite SINTTIA to speak at its convention, to no avail. That’s why we’re now working to get out the retiree vote, a huge bloc, for the Members United slate that will build international solidarity. Next steps? Worker-to-worker trips, political education, strengthening cross-border organization. México’s labor movement is sitting at a turning point. Can US labor match its progress?