[This document written in 1989 (in the language of the day) discusses important work from the 1980s by union activists who viewed the struggle against white supremacy as central to workers’ interests. It is hoped that readers will find that it offers some insights for use in struggles today.]
THE MAIL HANDLERS UNION AND THE FIGHT AGAINST RACISM
at the National and at the Grass Roots Level
by Jeffrey B. Perry
Notes From a Talk By the Treasurer of Local 300
At the Labor Notes Conference
Sunday May 21, 1989
Over the past five years at the 4000-workers New Jersey International Bulk Mail Center (in Jersey City, NJ) and over the past year-and-a-half at the national level, Postal Mail Handlers, desirous of a better life, have waged somewhat successful struggles in three broad areas: against contract givebacks and business unionism; against the organized crime dominated Laborers’ International Union; and for an autonomous, class conscious, and democratic rank-and-file oriented union.
From the beginning, the struggle against racism has been central to these efforts. It has been central in two crucial ways. First, we have been able to take significant strides forward because, as we have consciously fought against racism, we have developed a solid human core on which to build. Second, by addressing each major issue and stage of our struggle in light of the question “How does racism affect this?” and by then seeking to combat such racism, we have had a political direction that has enabled us to move forward. We have not merely reacted to racism; rather we have sought to dictate the direction of anti-racist struggle.
Lessons We Have Learned
In the course of our struggle we have learned, at times very imperfectly and at times with great difficulty, some important lessons. These lessons are no catechism of accepted beliefs, rather, they are based on specific and concrete struggles and each one is backed up by concrete examples in the real world.
These lessons, as we understand them, are:
1. By identifying and exposing racist practices, patterns, and ideas, and then calling on people to fight against them, we have not weakened our efforts, but we have made our efforts stronger.
2. To the degree that we have regularized, routinized, and institutionalized our anti-racist work, particularly in our publications, job responsibilities, and leadership positions, to that degree have we been better able to counter racial efforts aimed at undermining our struggle. Regularized and consistent work, not spontaneous reflex actions are needed against racism.
3. In developing our publications we could effectively employ political, economic, and moral arguments against racism, and that once we got the moral upperhond it was possible to employ disproportionately effective publicity against our opposition.
4. The core of our racist opposition was objectively sexist and that by exposing and struggling against this opposition on both grounds we were more effectively able to build our movement.
5. Our enemies, both in USPS management and in the LIUNA hierarchy, particularly at crucial stages in struggles, have consciously tried to make racist appeals and attacks to weaken us and to undermine our efforts.
6. Given the clearly racist positions taken by LIUNA, our struggles for “Autonomy” have been struggles which were objectively antiracist and which gave major impetus to our movement for democracy.
7. In our Black-led union, as opposed lo our union under LIUNA's “white” appointed leadership, progressive ideas and causes were far more warmly received and promulgated and thus Black leadership at all levels has greatly aided the progressive development of our union.
8. In the course of our struggles, white workers who have united with us on anti-racist issues have played a particularly important role in either winning or neutralizing other "whites," thereby enabling our efforts to move forward.
9. And finally, we have found that by challenging "white race" appeals and so-called "white worker rights” and "white worker interests" we better prepared ourselves to counter the racist appeals of management and LIUNA.
Who We Are
The National Postal Mail Handlers Union represents 52,000 Mail Handlers nationwide. Approximately half of our 42,000 members are African American, Hispanic, or other peoples of color. About 15% of our members are women. Six out of seven members of our National Executive Board are Black and about two-thirds of our 37 Local Presidents are Black or Hispanic.
We are the third largest of the Postal Unions. The American Postal Workers Union and the National Association of Letter Carriers each have six to seven times our membership.
Mail Handlers perform the heaviest, dirtiest, lowest paying work of the principal postal crafts. We load and unload trucks and otherwise "move" mail within postal facilities.
Since 1968 Mail Handlers have been merged with and a Division of LIUNA—the Laborer's International Union of North America, AFL-CIO. LIUNA is an organized crime dominated construction union of some half million members. The majority of its members are Black and Hispanic and its leadership is, almost exclusively, “white." LIUNA is one of the pillars of conservative reaction in the AFL-CIO. Further, through the AFL-CIO's Building Trades Council, LIUNA President Angelo Fosco and LIUNA Attorney Robert Connerton wield inordinate power.
LIUNA believes that it ultimately holds all decision making power over Mail Handlers -- particularly regarding our contract, constitution, and finances. LIUNA also apparently believes that it never has to answer to us. Over the past year-and-a half the NPMHU challenged LIUNA on all these counts.
We have had significant victories over LIUNA in two conventions, three national elections, in blocking a trusteeship, in gaining an injunction against their seizure of our money, and in passing a reform constitution highlighted by one-person-one-vote for national officers, democratic rights, and Mail Handler control, and shaped by the principled position articulated in our preamble, that "all members of society should challenge such pernicious evils as racism, sexism, and capital's domination of labor."
At the base level, workers at the 4,000-worker New Jersey International Bulk Mail Center in Jersey City, New Jersey have a history of struggle. Bulk workers participated in major wildcat strikes in 1974 and 1978, co-organized a several thousand person strong New Jersey Anti-Apartheid Mobilization Committee March in 1986, were vociferous Mail Handler opponents of the sellout 1987 postal contract, and currently are in the 10th day of a 100% successful cafeteria boycott. (In the first wildcat strike amnesty was obtained, in the second over 100 workers were fired. These firings were for striking against the federal government and were forerunners to the PATCO firings.)
Some Examples of Struggle
At the Base
At the NJIBMC over the past 5 years Mail Handler union members put out a regular, hard-hitting, 2-to-4 page weekly newsletter. The union has developed a well-trained stewards apparatus and a history of organized struggle.
Since 1984, campaigns have been waged for contract enforcement, particularly around: discipline attacks; safety violations; harassment of the ill, injured, and pregnant; bid posting violations; layoffs; restrictions on shop stewards functioning; opposition to split rest days; opposition to use of casual employees; opposition to improper holiday scheduling; for work clothing allowances; and against discrimination and favoritism in disciplines, details, overtime, promotions, and light duty assignments.
Struggles have also been waged on broader issues including the sell out 1987 postal contract; the right to distribute literature; asbestos removal; improper locker room searches; drug testing; cafeteria management; toxic waste removal; contra aid; a free Ireland; against mob control of our union; for a reform union constitution; and for a democratic one-person-one-vote union. When the union took up and co-organized the 1986 New Jersey State anti-apartheid march the work inside the plant was so productive that thousands of "Free South Africa" buttons were sold and worn by workers (of all races and nationalities) within the plant.
The First Struggle Set the Stage
At the NJIBMC, the first major struggle in this period set the stage for all future efforts and it was a decidedly anti-racist struggle.
After our new administration assumed office in 1984, on an anti-racist platform, it was quickly put to the test. Within a matter of weeks we discerned a clearly racist pattern to management's treatment of our workers. It started out with light duty denials -- denials of work to people with off-the-job injuries whose doctors said they could perform work with certain limitations. The first eight cases of light duty denials, which we encountered, were cases involving Black workers--one man with 5 children had been denied work for twenty-five months.
Other areas we examined had a similar racist shaping -- disciplines came down more frequently and more harshly against Black workers, promotions for Black workers were disproportionately few, as were assignment detail requests that were granted.
On further investigation we found that virtually every top level manager running our postal facility, as well as key high level officials in the other major facilities in North Jersey and New York, were white male members of the Columbia Association--an openly segregatory organization for Italian Americans only.
We found that this management dominated organization had utilized USPS-paid “free” mailings to solicit members and had incorporated in the State of New Jersey with its principal place of business at our postal facility.
We also found that its membership included high-level union people from our union, and reportedly from the other two major postal unions. The former head of the Mail Handlers Union at our facility was also the former President of the Columbia Association.
We openly challenged the existence of this racist/sexist organization, the power it wielded, and we opposed the patterns of discrimination it had established.
In the course of that struggle we were warned about how powerful the Columbians were, we were advised that we would alienate the “white” and the Italian workers, and we were advised to stick to more nuts and bolts union issues.
We, on the other hand, developed an effective media counter-offensive which helped us build our newsletter; we stressed how these issues directly affected all our workers; we emphasized that if we truly were a union which aimed to protect its workers that we had to make special efforts to counter special discrimination; and we emphasized that neither “white" workers' nor Italian workers' interests as workers were being served by this Columbia organization.
Once we gained the upper hand morally we used it to constantly hammer management on this issue and virtually every other issue that we touched. As long as the management dominated Columbia Association functioned we were relentless in our denunciations.
The Columbians did attempt a racist counter-offensive from within our union ranks, led by that former union leader who was also a former President of the Columbia Association, but this effort was quickly isolated, tied to management, and discredited.
The campaign against the Columbia Association was successful. The workers denied light duty assignments got the assignments and the man out 25 months got back pay.
The campaign effectively ousted the Columbia Association from our building and weakened management's power in relation to our union. The new union administration got off to a good start -- our efforts were viewed to be foursquare against racism and sexism, for the workers, and principled.
Over the next few years we tried to continue emphasizing this pro-worker, anti-racist perspective in developing our steward apparatus and grievance handling. We also sought to emphasize this pro-worker, anti-racist perspective in our newsletters. We found that we were best able to do this with a publication which was regular and frequent (we published weekly) and in which racism was seen as a central factor to be considered in all issues.
Fighting Racism at the National Level
At the National level we have been waging a major struggle for autonomy and democracy and we have increasingly tied this to a struggle for a better contract. In each stage of this struggle the fight against racism has been central. LIUNA has been accurately portrayed as racist, undemocratic, and ready to sell us out. The National Postal Mail Handlers' Union, in contrast, has consciously tried to oppose racism, build democracy, and oppose sellouts.
In late 1987, as 26 months of LIUNA trusteeship over our union was coming to an end, our union representatives at convention, and led by Black leaders, stood up in open rebellion and voted down every single one of LIUNA's proposed amendments to the Mail Handler constitution. Mail Handler delegates also elected a new progressive administration in which six out of seven Executive Board members were Black.
While there was a long history which went into the December 1987 Conference, it is important to realize that LIUNA supported a more conservative “white” candidate for top office and that the LIUNA trustee, in a widely reported statement, had sought to make a racist appeal to one of the white Local Presidents. That the racist appeal was exposed and criticized by “whites” helped to cement the necessary anti-racist, pro Mail Handler unity which was necessary to stand up to LIUNA and reject all their proposals in late 1987.
As the newly elected administration developed it openly challenged LIUNA rule on the grounds that it was autocratic, greedy, mob-tied, and racist, and therefore not working in the interest of Mail Handlers. This appeal, supported by facts and some exceptional legal work, enabled Mail Handlers to first march on LIUNA headquarters in protest, then block a LIUNA trusteeship, and then hold a remarkable constitutional convention.
The Constitutional Convention reshaped the union on the principles of one-person-one-vote direct election of national officers and Mail Handler control of contract and constitution matters. It also included important wording from the "Union Member's Bill of Rights."
The December 1988 Constitutional Convention also passed some remarkable Resolutions supporting freedom movements and workers efforts in the West Bank and Gaza, South Africa, and Nicaragua while opposing such domestic evils as two-tier wages, drug testing, organized crime involvement in our union, and the Hatch Act. Other resolutions also called for union democracy, organizing the unorganized, childcare, AIDS work, and taking the Postal Service off budget.
The Mail Handlers' Reform Constitution is an educational document that broadly proclaims the principles on which Mail Handlers have sought to build their new union. The Preamble declares:
We believe that all members of society should challenge such pernicious evils as racism, sexism, and capital's domination of labor. We further believe that it is important for the working class to ever realize "in unity there is strength" and that "an injury to one is an injury to all."
The Constitution also, consciously aimed to protect free speech rights and to allow struggles against racism and sexism by removing wording from the old constitution which prohibited "criticism, reflection, argument, or debate touching on any member's race, religion, color, creed, sex, place of national origin . . . etc." The thought behind this was that if you can't name, identify, and describe the problem, you couldn’t begin to solve it.
After we passed our constitution, which LIUNA is currently challenging, we entered a full-scale political struggle with LIUNA in the form of two, first-ever, one-person, one-vote, elections of national officers.
The LIUNA candidate for the top spot had money, resources, and a base of support centered around eight locals, six of which were “white”-led and conservative.
Literature supporting the LIUNA candidate was of two types. First, was material, which was misleading and sought to focus on narrow contract issues. Second, there was a series of "anonymous" "Willie Horton" type pieces that were simply vicious, racist literature -- and which were small time versions of the literature that appeared during the Bush campaign.
In contrast, the progressive African-American led “Team for Democracy" ran a campaign of broad appeal which had its core support in the South, the inner cities, and certain progressive locals. We centered our appeal on the newly franchised rank-and-file voters (who were all voting for the first time) and combined rank-and-file oriented literature and literature distribution with visits to facilities and in some places phone trees.
The “Team for Democracy" campaign took the higher ground, focused in-depth on contract issues, openly opposed racism, and tied the LIUNA candidate to our last sell-out contract and to selling us out to LIUNA.
The 1987 Postal Contract, signed by LIUNA while they had Mail Handlers under trusteeship, was broadly viewed as a back door deal between organized crime dominated LIUNA and Postmaster Preston Tisch. In that contract LIUNA undercut the other two postal unions by signing three weeks early and settling for a meager 1.6% wage increase (at a time when most of the media was predicting we would get anywhere from a 2.6 to a 3.2% increase).
In various literature which circulated it was also charged that the contract which LIUNA signed was tied to business deals between Tisch's CNA Insurance Company which underwrites and administers the Billion Dollar Mail Handler Benefit Plan (and several smaller union-related insurance plans) and LIUNA. LIUNA reportedly sought to gain control of signatory power over the lucrative Mail Handler Benefit Plan and wanted increased formal contract recognition from the United States Postal Service—recognition that it received when Tisch and Fosco agreed to replace Mail Handlers with LIUNA in certain key passages in the contract.
In that sell-out contract LIUNA also willingly gave up major EEO protections for our workers in the form of simultaneous dual filing rights. This was a racist concession which neither other postal union made and focus on this issue by the “Team for Democracy" greatly aided in the principled exposure of LIUNA.
The “Team for Democracy" election strategy worked. In the first round of the two-stage election procedures the “Team" swept five of seven National Executive Board spots. In the final runoff, the “Team" won the last two spots, including the crucial position of National President. In that final, head-to-head election, “Team for Democracy" candidates, running on an anti-racist anti-sellout, pro-democracy campaign won by almost a two-to-one margin.
In sum, based on recent experiences in the Mail Handlers Union, the struggle against racism has been central to our struggles for a more democratic, class conscious, rank-and-file oriented union and to the degree that we have maintained that perspective and acted accordingly we have moved our struggle forward.