Strike city: Louisville’s labor legacy and future

Drive through the streets of Louisville’s West End, past row after row of abandoned homes. The windows are boarded up, and “NO COPPER” is spray painted across their clapboard sides. Or meander, if you will, through the little roads that crisscross just south of Broadway near downtown, and you will see them. Sometimes, just an empty field surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, other times, a hulking brick structure straight out of a slasher flick or perhaps a nondescript little building that cries out to head-lamped urban explorers to be discovered. What these sites share in common is their history.

These are the relics of Louisville’s industrial past.

Thousands of Louisvillians once occupied these buildings, turning out everything from cars and air conditioners, to farm equipment and cigarettes. Now, save for GE, Ford and a few others, almost none of the erstwhile titans of River City industry remain in operation today. These buildings were the backdrops to more than a few scenes of high drama, as Louisville in the mid-20th century became a crossroads for the racial integration of the South, and as the broader American working-class came to terms with its post-war exploitation.

This Labor Day, the labor movement in America finds itself in much the same place it has been for a decade or more. News media paint a picture of a movement on its knees, fighting for its very survival.

Labor Day is a strange holiday. Created as a milquetoast alternative to the more radical labor holiday of May Day (celebrated internationally on May 1 as “International Workers’ Day”), Labor Day today has become merely a day off from work for middle-class workers to grill out with their families while low-wage workers continue to toil. In the minds of many people, the holiday is completely divorced from its roots as a day to celebrate the American labor movement.

Of all places, Louisville should know its labor history, for it is filled with rich stories of struggle and hardship, victory and defeat. It is a story that cannot be told fully in the pages of an alt-weekly. But it’s a history worth discovering, even just a piece at a time.

Local 236: Louisville’s racially integrated union

Perhaps nowhere in Louisville was the intersection of labor activism and racial integration more pronounced than at the International Harvester plant near the Louisville airport. Here, workers represented by Local 236 of the United Farm Equipment and Metal Workers Union (FE) engaged in some of the most militant and radical labor action in Louisville’s history.

University of Louisville professor Catherine Fosl, in her illuminating biography of local activist Anne Braden, writes that “despite heightened anti-communist rhetoric … anti-communism was held at bay in Louisville by the incredible solidarity that characterized several locals.” Foremost among these was Local 236. Led in part by Sterling Neal, a charismatic African American shop steward at International Harvester (and father to State Senator Gerald Neal), 236 exemplified what Fosl calls a “kind of solidarity [that] made the labor left more able to maintain a voice in local politics than was the case in most Southern cities.”

International Harvester was a heavily unionized company across America, so when it opened its first southern facility in Louisville in 1946 it is likely the company was hoping to avoid what it considered the burden of unionization. Unfortunately for IH, the union followed the company, organizing the Louisville plant’s relatively young workforce within years of the plant’s opening.

Labor historian Toni Gilpin visited Louisville in 2014 to discuss FE Local 236 in multiple speaking engagements in the city. Her research on Louisville’s groundbreaking local union at International Harvester is cited in the aforementioned work by University of Louisville Professor Fosl. LEO spoke with Gilpin for this article, and aside from her fondness for the city itself, she speaks with authority on this facet of Louisville labor history.

“The union’s philosophy, coupled with practical necessity given the opposition it faced, obliged it to remain in perpetual organizing mode,” Gilpin writes. During the organizing drive, racial tensions emerged as white workers were forced to confront the union’s strict non-discrimination policies. In a rare move for the time, FE encouraged the employment of black workers in all jobs within the plants they represented. For some white workers, this policy was anathema to their deeply-held views on race. But white workers were largely won over in time, as the union’s policy of solidarity above all else began to yield tangible victories for all the workers.

“Local 236 established its reputation early on, when shortly after the union secured representation at the plant it engaged in a 40 day strike to challenge the lower “southern differential” pay rates the company had planned to impose,” Gilpin writes. “From then on the union relied on militant and immediate confrontation with management to protect workers’ interests.”

This approach to labor-management relations stands in stark contrast to today’s more common “cooperative” approach. When asked why the members of Local 236 were able to pursue such a strategy in spite of the more common cooperative approach, Gilpin’s response was simple: “Quite simply, solidarity and militancy paid off for Local 236 members.”

There are multiple theories about why FE Local 236 did not survive in Louisville. Some credit belongs to corporate America’s relentless pursuit of cheaper and cheaper labor, with industry moving deeper into the American South and then beyond, to Asia and Latin America. Additionally, the union’s candidly left-wing politics did them no favors as McCarthy-era anti-communism swept the country in general, and the labor movement in particular. But some credit lies with the United Auto Workers, which waged an aggressive takeover of FE over the course of the mid-20th century.

“Hit the streets and organize”

Walking into the marble-floored monolith that is the union hall of Teamsters Local 89 feels a bit like stepping back in time. Wood paneling lines the walls of the many offices and conference rooms and the hallway is decorated with photos of past union leaders. Fred Zuckerman, the local union’s president, is an unassuming man, middle-aged but with a youthful vigor that makes him seem younger than he is. Zuckerman started in the labor movement as a rank-and-file member, working in freight as a Teamster in Texas before moving to Kentucky, where he was urged by some of the old-timers in the union to run for union office.

Zuckerman crackles with energy when he talks about the work of his union. He is not your granddad’s labor leader; he has a vision for the future, and he’s campaigning to make that vision a reality as he wages a (some might say uphill) campaign for national office in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on a ticket against International President James Hoffa, son of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa.

Zuckerman has served as president of Local 89 for 15 years and has distinguished the union as a fighting union, waging strikes against such employers as Voith and Kroger, and threatening a massive strike against UPS in 2013. “People know that we’re a strong local,” he says. “We’ve made sure that everybody knows that. We negotiate good contracts. We don’t sit back and take it — we’re fighting for the people.”

Local 89, which represents thousands of Louisville-area UPS employees, twice voted down a supplemental contract before the international union unilaterally implemented the contract behind Local 89’s back. “We had good reasons for voting it down,” Zuckerman says, recalling the battle between his local and their international union.

“We were still bargaining with UPS when the international implemented the contract.”

Teamsters International sought to mitigate conflict between the local and UPS in the interest of keeping the peace. Unfortunately for them, Zuckerman wouldn’t have it. This is a critical way that Zuckerman’s outfit distinguishes itself from other modern unions. A trend of so-called “labor-management relations” has crept into the labor movement. This concept places priority on unions developing good “working relationships” with the employers with whom they negotiate, eschewing the labor model of old, in which the only acceptable relationship between workers and employers was one marked by direct action by workers against their employers. Zuckerman takes this very seriously.

“We are here to represent the members and their interests. I don’t allow my agents to have relationships with the employers. [Employers] are just trying to buy influence” with the union by trying to “build relationships.”

“The only way we’re gonna survive,” he says, “is if we hit the streets and organize.”

Another growing trend is the phenomenon of labor contracts featuring a so-called “two-tier” system of wages and/or benefits. Two-tier contracts create a situation in which workers hired more recently are paid less and given fewer benefits and leave time than workers who have worked at a facility for decades. For instance, a worker at a company hired in 2013 may have a wage scale that tops out at $17.00 an hour, while a worker hired at the very same company to do the very same job in 1993 may top out at $35.00 an hour. Understandably, many younger workers feel as if their livelihood is not seen by the company or the union as being as important as their older peers.

Reflecting on the trend, which has been criticized for undermining solidarity and hurting the esteem of the union in the eyes of young workers, Zuckerman was quick to condemn the practice. Two-tier contracts, he says, are concessions. “Younger workers realize that they’re making less money. They feel like second-class citizens. I think it’s very harmful to the movement. It doesn’t accomplish anything other than telling the company, ‘We’ll give you anything you want.’”

During LEO’s conversation with Zuckerman, he repeatedly turned to the idea that the labor movement is only as strong as its members. In surveying the history of the movement, one finds a compelling correlation between the decline in union membership and organized labor’s esteem, and the increased bureaucracy of the movement. The obvious takeaway for the movement’s leaders is that the movement is at its best when its rank-and-file members are empowered, a notion familiar to many union members in Louisville today.

The view from the grassroots

This is what solidarity looks like: a group of politically engaged, conscious working-class union members and leaders. Much like the images of International Harvester workers of FE Local 236 on the picket line with their wives and children in the ’40s and ’50s (the kind of militancy that earned Louisville the nickname “Strike City”), the sense of community among these union women and men seems impenetrable.

Teamsters Local 89 steward and Kroger lift truck operator Trey McCutcheon expressed it well. “My union brothers and sisters are my family. Many of us are closer to our union family than to our blood family,” McCutcheon stated.

“I love going to the union hall. You feel a lot of love. I have so many brothers and sisters, I really don’t communicate with people outside of the union,” UPS union steward and Teamsters 89 member Vivian Holbrook said.

Unions are on the decline in the U.S. (only 11 percent of the private sector is unionized), but these rank-and-filers are persistent. Local 89 business agent James DeWeese describes the labor movement as a “lifestyle” for his sisters and brothers in the union.

“It’s fear, plain and simple,” Holbrook told the LEO, regarding the chasm between U.S. favorability of unions (currently at 58 percent, per a recent Gallup poll) vis-à-vis the small percentage of the private sector that is unionized. Corporations rely on the billion-dollar “union-avoidance” industry, utilizing the services of PR and law firms dedicated to persuading employees to not vote in a union, with a heavy emphasis on scare tactics.

“We do this because we believe it’s a struggle worth fighting for,” Jim Hughes, Teamsters 783 member and Anheuser Busch employee told the LEO, referring to his role as political liaison for his union and his advocacy for the Louisville labor movement. Teamsters Jim Hughes, Trey McCutcheon and Bill Miller were all active in the fight against efforts to pass “right-to-work” ordinances in various counties this year. “We stood up to testify against it,” McCutcheon said, showing the LEO an image of himself decked out in a Teamsters shirt at a podium in a room filled with a suit-and-tie crowd.

Right-to-work states give rise to lower raises, and “workplace deaths are 54 percent higher in right-to-work states,” Caitlin Lally of UFCW Local 227 told the LEO. Right-to-work is pushed by primarily conservative interest groups with corporate backing. While Kentucky isn’t a right-to-work state, there has been a concerted effort for outside groups to pass ordinances at the county level in Kentucky.

“Look, you get better wages, better benefits for what comes out to be two-and-a-half hours of work per month,” Jeff Fischer, Teamsters Local 89 member stated. “I know non-union people who are paying $12,000 a year for insurance, and they’re worried about two-and-a-half hours of pay per month,” Fischer continued.

“It’s a misnomer. Unions are actually doing tangible things for working people. Right-to-work does the opposite of that,” Mary Thurman, an elementary school teacher with the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA), the JCPS teacher union. Thurman also discussed how proud she is that her union has shed light on the need to reform the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS), which teachers depend on (teachers in the public school system do not receive Social Security).

But right-to-work isn’t labor’s only challenge. Member education and lack of involvement in members’ unions was just as severe a concern to most members as right-to-work and pensions. “Apathy is our own worst enemy,” Rick Stevens of Teamsters Local 89 told LEO. “A union’s like a gym membership. You get out of it what you put in,” Bill Miller of Local 89 told LEO. “If you don’t show up, your union’s not gonna be strong.”

Teamsters 89 member Jeff Fischer believes since unionization is low at the present time, much of the public perception is crafted by sources other than “union families.” “Most of what is known about the union for people that aren’t union comes from the media, which is controlled by corporate America, thus it’s negative,” Fischer told the LEO.

Clearly reaching out to their fellow rank-and-file union members is hard work, but these activists see it as a calling and show no sign of slowing down.

Local rank-and-file on the ‘union advantage’

All local union members the LEO spoke with discussed a clear union advantage. “Many non-union employees mistakenly believe they have rights to defend themselves against mistreatment and false accusations. Technically, they don’t have such rights in non-union workplaces,” Tom Louderback, a union steward for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2629 explained.

Unions are able to negotiate just-cause-for-termination into their contracts. This means that if an employee is terminated, there must be an adequate reason; if not, the union can dispute the company’s claim.

Stacy Spencer, an AFSCME Local 2629 member and employee of the Louisville Revenue Commission, was thankful she was a union member when she was put in such a situation. Spencer said that on the basis of an email comment that was taken out of context, she was terminated on the grounds of threatening individuals in the human resources department.

“I had no money. I was a single mom, and I had to take my retirement out in order to pay my bills,” Spencer said. “I couldn’t get unemployment because of a policy violation that was never proved.”

Local 2629 fought for over a year to get Spencer her job back. Eventually they won because the employer had no proof of the accusations of threats of violence. “I was not only able to get my job back, but I got back-pay and benefits back-pay,” Spencer said. Local 2629 also paid the legal fees to fight for Spencer.

This event changed Stacy’s perception of the union, and turned her into a labor movement activist. “If we ever have any campaigns going on, or we’re doing public outreach, I’m the first to volunteer. The union saved my life.”

Raphael Harvey, a UPS truck driver and union steward with Teamsters 89, was catalyzed and became a steward because of a similar situation. “I was terminated once for being two minutes over my lunch break,” Harvey told the LEO. “I got my job back two weeks later, and that really pushed me to become a union steward to help other workers.”

Bob Blair, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 227 was also first made aware of the power of the union through grievance proceedings. Blair is from the rank-and-file, and started at a Kroger in Louisville (the majority of Local 227 members are employed by Kroger). “I was stocking shelves. About nine months after I got hired, myself and two of my friends got fired one morning,” Blair told the LEO. “We got fired for something bogus that couldn’t be proven. The next day, my union rep. told me we were going to fight this, and by five o’clock the next day, I had my job back.”

Bob Blair explains that this situation showed him that he didn’t have to be bullied at work, and he began attending union meetings from this point. This sent him down the path of a career in the labor movement.

Mary Thurman of JCTA referred to the union advantage as “having a voice at work.” These union women and men wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gateway to the labor movement

Like many active union members, Rick Stevens comes from a family of unionized, West Virginia mine workers and is a member of Teamsters Local 89 — he is a machine operator employed by Jeffboat (a company in Jeffersonville, Indiana which specializes in shipbuilding). He was catalyzed as a militant union activist when there was an effort to decertify the union in 2006. “I feared I’d lose the best job I’d ever had,” Stevens told the LEO. “Well, we got radicalized real fast. We had to become organizers on the fly and talk to our people on the shop floor.”

“Teamsters were brought in from all over the country, but an anti-union group had been flown in by the company to help the decertification effort,” Stevens said. However, due to the rank-and-file organizing efforts, they beat the effort to decertify the union. “In the end, the vote to keep the union was 649 to 190. It was the first time this anti-union group had ever lost,” Stevens told the LEO.

Local 89 business agent James DeWeese discusses learning about the labor movement and its advantages at the dining-room table. Unions “made a huge difference in our life,” DeWeese stated, discussing the difference between when his parents went from non-union to union jobs.

DeWeese started as a rank-and file worker for UPS when he was 18. Local 89’s largest bargaining unit is at UPS. “I got into a squabble with the company in the beginning and saw the benefits of the union, and I became a steward shortly thereafter. I remained a steward until I started working as a business agent.”

Like DeWeese, UFCW Local 227 Kroger employee and chief union steward Sharon Bayens came from a union family. She was taught about her rights on the job by her mother, who was an active United Auto Workers (UAW) member at the Ford plant. “She taught me about my rights at work at an early age,” Bayens told the LEO. While she wasn’t particularly active early on, she was inspired to become a steward when she saw many issues plaguing Kroger. “My nickname is ‘bulldog’ now,” Bayens laughingly told the LEO. “I never could stand a bully, and I never back down from a bully. That’s why I’m union strong and stand by my union,” Bayens stated.

Labor’s progressive values and the need for militancy

Since the days of FE Local 236’s pre-Civil Rights movement awareness for the need for racial justice, labor has embodied a concern for social and economic justice. A popular slogan embodied by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) encapsulates the labor movement’s stance well: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Caitlin Lally, communications director for UFCW Local 227, stated that she had a political organizing background and didn’t have prior union experience. “However, as a progressive, I quickly found that my core values of fairness, equality and justice were very much in line with the labor movement,” Lally told the LEO.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLE) member John Paul Wright articulated the importance of those progressive values Lally mentions, particularly the notion of workers being able to organize from the grassroots and fight for themselves to improve their lot. “I’m heavily invested in the rank-and-file rebellion, meaning I favor bottom-up organizing in unions,” Wright told the LEO. Wright is a Louisville-based railroad engineer and union activist by night. “By law, I’m affiliated with the BLE, but I’m involved with other unions,” Wright told the LEO. “I’m [also] a voluntary member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),” Wright stated.

“The IWW has always had the idea that all workers should be in the same organization, and that’s certainly considered radical and utopian, but it appeals to me,” Wright said. “I learned about the IWW and thought the constitution was incredible, because it doesn’t give the top [of the union] much control.” Wright started the current Louisville branch of the IWW.

Wright is also a folk musician who writes songs about labor struggles of past and present. He continues the long lineage of folk singers like Utah Phillips (himself a member of the IWW), Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie who amplified the message of the working-class and the labor movement.

LEO found a consensus across the board from rank-and-file union members and union leaders: The status-quo, labor-management relations favored by some American unions is harmful for the labor movement. James DeWeese of Teamsters 89 repeated an old labor slogan, popularized by the IWW: “Direct action gets the goods,” DeWeese said. DeWeese is referring to militancy (i.e., strikes, public protests, work slow-downs, et cetera) over the cozy relationship some U.S. unions have with the management of corporations.

Local union members on Labor Day and the future of their movement

Local union members are all well-convinced that the eight-hour workday, the abolition of child labor and the origin of the weekend — all causes spearheaded and championed by the U.S. labor movement — are not on the mind of the average Louisvillian enjoying a domestic (union-made, most likely) beer and a brat this Labor Day. This just means they have more work to do. “We need to work on how we tell our story as a movement,” Caitlin Lally of UFCW Local 227 stated.

And in Louisville, the embers from Louisville’s fiery past remain alive. The local Central Labor Council, an arm of the AFL-CIO (a federation of the state’s labor unions), has recently elected new leadership and is reviving a number of dormant programs and committees dedicated to organizing and community service; a prominent local union president, Fred Zuckerman of Teamsters Local 89, is running for international office in his union on a platform of cleaning up corruption and increasing transparency; and across the Metro area, rank-and-file members are taking ownership of their unions and fighting back against unscrupulous employers who would return us to Gilded Age levels of economic inequality and working-class squalor.

The Louisville labor movement’s tenacity and optimism should not be misinterpreted as misguided or naïve. If “Strike City” is to once again gain a reputation for being a militant labor hub, it will be these active union members and leaders who will stoke the flame inside the Louisville worker once again to fight for their fair share of the pie.