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Where There is Smoke There is Fire

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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Smokescreens and Sabotage

Organizing tactics and strategiesaffect every aspect of the union. During my organizing days, everythingmy team and I did were carefully calculated to influence the way futurecampaigns would be run. These days, while teaching management training courses, I mention how we took a “victory by any means necessary” approach. One of the most common questions I receive is “why would a union want to destroy a company when all it is doing is hurting their own members who won’t have a job if the company closes”.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

As a leader in the world of union organizing, I would never walk away from a strike if things were not going the way of the union. While coordinating the Detroit Newspaper Strike with 2,600 strikers which wentfrom 1995 and was settled in 2002, I never walked away. When the company and six union’s ratified a contract, the unions went after the two newspapers parent companies (Gannett & Knight-Ridder) nationwideand the strike cost an estimate 500 Million dollars plus the projected profit margin of over 100 million a year. We were either going to say “look at what we did for those workers on strike” or tell the companies “look at what we did to that company that we took on strike, do you wantthat to happen to you?” Now this is the reality of the damage our hardball tactics inflicted on the newspaper industry as a whole; there has not been another large newspaper strike in the nation since then. Mytactics worked in favor of the union members, but if members got hurt in the process (and they did) then they were just collateral damage.

Attacking anyone doing business with a company with workers out on strike was (and still is a common tactic used by the unions). In the Detroit Newspaper strike, we went after any outlet selling the newspapers. We went after any company that advertised in the newspapers.We had “floating” teams, which consisted of hundreds of strikers, who would go to preselected strategic locations and try to harm the businesses. We didn’t care what type of business. We went after gas stations, supermarkets, bookstores, large department stores, hospitals. Iremember receiving reports that owners and managers of these businesseswould bring the papers out to our teams or throw them in the garbage sothat they would be left alone. At the time this made me quite happy. Myplan was working. When targeting large retailers like Kmart, Target or Sears, they would be restricted to certain areas or kept too far away from the stores to do any damage. Our teams developed a “Strike Force” It was later reported that the strike force would sneak into the stores “undercover” armed with skunk spray in water pistols and conceal them injackets and purses. They would damage merchandise by dispersing the spray inside the stores. The spray was so powerful that the stores wouldempty out within 10 minutes of the “attack”. A few times, the fire department was called because the store management believed there was a gas leak. Customers would stand outside and stop other customers from entering the store. Again, my plan was working.

During the strike, the public majority supported our cause but wecertainly kept our “secret activities” to our internal group. Our fightlead to a huge upswing in organizing activity in the State of Michigan because the public viewed this strike as a “good” fight.

I remember one night, at a small distribution center in a working class neighborhood in the City of Detroit where strikers were fighting hand to hand with the private security guards hired by the company. There were about 100 guards in the building but about 3,000 guards throughout the city and all had full riot gear on. Several trucksand personal vehicles were burning. The strikers would make it a priority to tip over and disable the flood light generators so that theywouldn’t be caught on camera. To our surprise, over a hundred residentsfrom this neighborhood joined in the fight with bats, rocks and anything they could get their hands on. Even the President of the Detroit City Council, MaryAnn Mahaffey and her husband were on the strike line that night. We heard of many attacks on out-of-state delivery trucks. Strikers and supporters were taking out tires, windows and even attacking the drivers. Even with all this violence, our organizing numbers in the State continued to rise.

We used this strike and others to help organizing efforts and even brought in strikers to talk to workers in ongoing organizing campaigns to neutralize the impact of the companies anti-union campaign.We brought these organizing workers to union rallies, and to Labor Day parades and events.

The Detroit Newspaper strike made the national spotlight. The truth of the matter was that we carefully calculated how to use this strike to our advantage to benefit the union movement as a whole in order to attract new members throughout the country. Now I sit on the other side of the fence and help companies prevent this type of manipulation from the current regime of union organizers, but it is important to always remember that unions did and still do think about organizing tactics and strategies ten years into the future and are currently strategizing to meet long term objectives, as well as their short term goals.

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