Below we’re running an article on a strike that took place in Detroit in 1987.  We’re running it because of what workers here in NZ, and readers around the world, can learn from this dispute.  It’s one where the workers said a resounding “No!” to the company’s demands that they sacrifice conditions and benefits and to the union leaders whose starting point was to make concessions to the employers – and get in the way of workers being able to fight!

This strike against health care giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) went against the wider trend in the US workplace at the time, which was to make concessions and not resist, a trend which is very much dominant in the New Zealand workplace thirty years later.  It was also marked by a large degree of rank-and-file control over the struggle and a continuous battle for workers to maintain this control in the face of manoeuvres by the union bureaucracy to take it over – and bring it to an end.

The BCBSM strike also won support from other workers, most particularly auto workers and a number of local officials in the auto workers’ union. 

The Spark is an American Marxist workers’ group which was active in the strike, Detroit historically being one of their main centres of activity. 

by The Spark

Thirty years ago, workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) went on strike. Chants of “No contract, no work!” and “Don’t get sick tonight: Blue Cross is on strike!” filled the air in downtown Detroit and at other statewide locations. The strike of approximately 4,000 workers began in September 1987, immediately preceding Labor Day. The strike was not over until winter moved in, eighty-three days later, in November.

The healthcare giant, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, dominated the Michigan health care industry and controlled around 70 percent of the industry statewide at that time. It was demanding major concessions at the bargaining table, taking advantage of the fact that the new 1987 contract would now cover all four local unions in offices around Michigan in a Master Labor Agreement. The company viewed it as an opportunity to impose the worst from all of the former agreements, and then some. They were a paternalistic employer; the majority of employees were women and, like public employees, were considered lucky to have decent benefits that included time off for taking care of family needs, and health care as well. Of course, the wages were not equivalent to wages earned by manufacturing workforces that were predominately male.

In the concessionary drive, earlier unspoken agreements regarding benefits as a trade-off for wages were forgotten, as the bosses came after all they could get. Benefits were at the front of their list. Always a company that believed in the stick before the carrot, BCBSM looked to impose drastic cuts in workers’ sick time off provisions and to eliminate policies that gave women workers some needed flexibility in work start times and in taking increments of time off to attend to personal and family needs. While wages were an issue in the strike, the elimination of time-off provisions and the flexibility to be able to avoid discipline and firing while still maintaining their second job, the family, was foremost in women workers’ minds.

The largest number of workers were housed in Detroit, with almost 3,000 unionized employees and almost as many more who were salaried workers, called “exempts,” meaning they couldn’t be in the union. While the union was comprised of clerical, office and professional employees, the majority of the professionals were non-union. Many of them were not particularly well paid. But they were treated better and they did not have to account for every second of work time or be disciplined.

The strike at Blue Cross broke out in a period when strikes had been dwindling precipitously in the U.S. Starting from a high point of 424 major strikes in 1974, they slid rapidly downward, falling to 235 by 1979, to 81 in 1983, and then to 54 in 1985. And despite militancy and courage, some of these strikes were really broken. By the end of 1987, auto workers would accept three sets of concessions in eight years.

So why did a group of inexperienced, lower paid, mainly female, heads of household decide they could go up against an industry giant? In the beginning, men in both the international union and in the company were heard saying: “No worries. They’ll be back in a week or less.” The strikers proved them to be, “Oh, So Wrong!”

Why were Blues workers willing to fight?

A combination of factors contributed to the willingness of those workers to take on a fight for their rights. In the years leading up to the strike of 1987, Blues workers had become aware of tensions in the United Auto Workers union around concessions. Many of the women in southeast Michigan were married to auto workers or had auto workers in the family who had lost income and endured worsening working conditions. They saw in their own families where accepting concessions led.

Also, many of the Blues workers had come through the organizing drives of two major unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW), at Blue Cross. The Teamster organizing drive of the 1970s had been defeated after a vicious attack by Blue Cross management, which portrayed the Teamsters as gangsters, complete with grisly photos of mob killings. The second organizing drive, that of the UAW, brought around it militant workers from the Teamster drive, joined by new militants. The UAW drive, with an organizing committee of around 20, went on to secure a successful vote for the new union in 1982. In the years following, rank and file workers were engaged in fights on the floor for their rights, like time off and work standards.

This core of organizers, who now formed the new apparatus of the local union in Detroit, had gone through experiences that taught them that it was possible to build something. As the UAW International struggled to control them and settle them down into depending on grievance procedures and set meeting schedules, a section of the new union leaders was unwilling to be restrained within the traditional framework.

Finally, in 1984, an unhappy contract bargaining resulted in the two-tier sick-time policy that would be a major issue in the 1987 strike. To be female without sufficient time for children and families was a negative prospect for Blues women workers. Workers began insisting on retaining time-off programs for those who still had them and reinstating them for newer hires, who didn’t. The women needed to have enough time to be sick, and to take care of child care needs. Flexible starting times, called Flextime, allowed workers to get around being disciplined for having morning, family-caused, delays. And finally, the six days of “personal time,” a bank of time that could be used in 15-minute increments to schedule needed time off for appointments, kids, etc., was at risk.

The 1987 local union elections: securing a mandate

In 1987, Sally Bier, who had been a member of the UAW organizing committee and then held subsequent positions as Steward and Zone Representative, ran for President of the Detroit local union with a slate of 12 executive candidates, with many more workers running for the Steward positions. This slate, called the New Attitude slate, put forward a different policy in opposition to the local union administration that was linked to the International Union.

The program of this slate was “No Concessions, No Secrets from the Workers,” and called for workers to have all information prior to decision making on a contract. In a leaflet addressed to all the workers, they wrote, “Don’t vote for us if you are not ready to fight if BCBSM demands concessions.”

The election was hotly contested, with hundreds of workers involved and active. Bier was elected president, and others on her slate were also elected. But the old leaders were still the majority of the union’s apparatus. With split forces, old and new, constant fights and disagreements between union leaders raised the question of trust and of deciding on a different policy for the union in the face of concessions. And with Blue Cross aiming to take concessions, there was no opportunity for anyone to settle into a “let-the-union-handle-it” mind set.

The question of the right to information

Four different local unions with three different contracts and different cultures were thrown together for bargaining. Although the large core was in Detroit, the International Union promoted and succeeded in putting a president of a smaller union, who was loyal to the International’s apparatus, in the Bargaining Chair position.

At the table, like at most bargaining tables, the UAW insisted that all bargaining remain secret and not be shared with people outside the bargaining table. Of course, the company executives and many others were automatically included for information. But the workers were not: they were supposed to await the decisions made by union and company officials.

The ones newly elected had a different premise: that is, that the workers had the right to have all information and to be part of the ongoing bargaining process; that, in fact, the power to win demands against the bosses depended on the workers themselves and the fight they were ready to make to obtain their demands. To the team around Bier, the power to win was in the strike fight, and in the ability of workers to decide for themselves, not in what was said and done at the bargaining table.

Bier and her team put out daily reports on bargaining and held meetings for workers to discuss and vote, not just on what they were brought, but on what they wanted. What a revolutionary idea! While unions often take boiler-plate surveys of the members, they are not definite or specific.

More revolutionary was the idea that workers could make decisions on strike demands by voting on them with everyone in attendance. Bier left the bargaining table in the hours leading up to the midnight contract deadline to chair a meeting of almost 1,000 workers in the downtown local. In the face of threats by the International and the Company, she asked the meeting to vote on what the company had last “offered,” and to formulate what they wanted, as strike demands. Contrary to accepted ideas, to vote like this is not inefficient. Workers voted by quarter of percents on where to set the bar for wages. (Would they settle for 2.75 or 3.00 percent?) They voted for 3% and they voted resoundingly for flexible working hours, controls on overtime, to retain the banks of sick-time weeks from the Tier One sick-time policy (that guaranteed full payment for sick time off), and to retain flexible start times.

Vitally important, by their votes in this meeting, workers in reality made the decision to strike THEIR own decision, not the bargaining committee’s, or the International’s decision, but theirs.

The election of a committee to run the strike. . .

In addition, workers voted to elect a strike committee. On the third day of the strike, Bier called for the election of a strike committee in a meeting of almost 1,000 workers. Why a strike committee? To run the strike of course; to make decisions in the heat of the fight and to take decisions to the full body of strikers as often as possible. Twenty-two workers put themselves forward. But Bier also proposed several others – other leaders of the local who it was important not to exclude or to counterpose to the committee. And so the Strike Committee was voted into place to lead the strike. It was a means of putting decision making in the hands of those making the fight. This was the committee which would organize the strike on a daily basis. Over the 12 weeks of the strike, as the situation got more difficult, some workers stepped aside, but others joined it, reinforcing the workers’ determination to continue the strike.

Workers also decided to have daily membership meetings. This was unheard of, and greatly agitated the International Union. But it made sense to the workers. They were proposing to make a real fight, not to have a monthly meeting to vote on a budget or a holiday party.

Why was the International so opposed to this? Why so opposed that the man from the UAW’s Strike Insurance department in charge of the Blue Cross strike cut off the union’s strike benefits to individuals who were on the strike committee? Because workers’ votes formulating demands and the decision to meet every day took the strike out of the hands of the union apparatus and put it into the hands of the workers.

The goals of the International through its Strike Assistance Program were to be spokespersons and bosses for the workers, to limit the strike, and to have people go home and wait for a result. Meanwhile, leaders of the strike planned everyday meetings to keep workers connected and making their own decisions.

. . . and more committees

The Strike Committee asked workers to form other committees, like the picket captain committee, which numbered 50 in the early days of the strike, responsible for 24-hours-a-day, 7- days-a-week picketing. Captains decided to meet every day, and they brought their recommendations into the daily strike committee meetings, and then met after strike committee meetings to organize the next day’s work.

There was also a cheerleader committee, a sign maker committee, and the communications team. Workers tackled these committee positions with excitement, and were always meeting to figure problems out. Cheerleaders weren’t just there to cheer like in a football game. They were responsible for a whole range of activity connected with vocalizing the struggle – getting out the news!

The sign makers, the same. It was more than just setting pen to paper – they decided on slogans to reflect the strike demands. They visualized how the world saw the strike and what coverage they could get in the press. One of the best known signs showed banners about the Condos and Cadillacs scandal that broke and the picture of kids on the line with their mothers was a favorite. Later pictures from the press show the story of the strike through the slogans on banners and showed picketers engaged in a real, unrehearsed, unmanipulated fight that was truly about them and theirs.

The International Union tried to make an issue over what was “official” and set up two committees that were necessary to the strike, but under its control. These were the Community Services Committee and the Check Writer Committee. The Strike Assistance Program of the UAW held the reins on money expenditures for the strike; they used these committees to verify eligibility for receipt of strike benefits based on performance of picket duty. The Community Service Committee handled a massive number of problems on behalf of the workers. In the beginning, the Check Writers and the Community Services Committee viewed the strike actions directed by the worker committees as a mess. Some of it definitely was! But as the strike went on, and these “official” committees became more involved in the workers’ problems, they became integrated into the workers’ actions and meetings, for the most part.

Daily life of the strike

For many strikers, the most memorable part of the strike was daily life on the picket lines there in the heart of Detroit. From midnight when the strike was declared, until the days after the strikers had returned, the companionship, the comradery and the experiences as picketers, captains, cheerleaders, sign makers was an unexpected gift of the event. Strike leaders came everyday, but so did many other workers, picket captains, cheerleaders, sign makers among them. Some came two or three times a week until they couldn’t do it any longer. As the strike went on, attendance on the lines dropped off as strikers took part time jobs. But the organizers of the strike made sure there was always an event pending that workers could attend when they were able. So the strikers made sure to schedule regular demonstrations and “rolls” or moving demonstrations, to ensure workers could always know where and when to reconnect. Outreach committees tried to bring more people to the line and went out to different workplaces like Ford, Chrysler, GM plants to hand out flyers about the strike.

The fact that the International Union had not planned for a strike, and didn’t order the events of the first days and weeks, gave workers the opportunity to control their own strike. Because picketing had not been planned out in advance, the workers took the attitude that it was up to them to get everyone down to the picket line. The calling committee was a group of telephone inquiry representatives, maybe 20 of them, who were appointed by their local president to call workers to have them report. The fact that other workers, not the International or the local, were asking them to come made it real; what ensued was a whole series of discussions and decisions on committees and by the strike committee to insist that four hours a week, the time required by the International UAW to qualify for strike benefits, was not enough! Imagine workers voting multiple times to insist that eight hours a week was the requirement, and that was just the start! It was only after multiple weeks on strike that the International Union succeeded in convincing part of the workers that they shouldn’t come for more than four hours – “they can’t require more than the International rules call for which is four hours!” “What a crock!”, was the workers’ response. “That’s why they can’t win anything!”

When workers walked out, picketers appeared out of Computer Operations and the Mail Room, ready and willing to block trucks. A picketer took his shirt off and used it as a flag to let the truckers know Blue Cross was on strike. The first days of the strike were filled with meetings and demonstrations.

When Teamsters from Local 299 decided to “roll” hundreds of trucks around Blue Cross in low gear, cutting off access to and from the building and sounding their horns when strikers made the signal to “BLOW!”, it was one of the happiest times on the lines.

Picketing was 24 hours 7 days, and all committees put that first. But hundreds of workers came through downtown. There were strike halls at St. Andrews Hall and in the basement of the Globe Building where the local was housed. The Strike Headquarters at St. Andrews Hall had a reading room and a child care area as well. With coffee and donuts, it became the place to be, and to get strike bulletins from the strike committee and notices of demonstrations or “rolls” to come.

The Cheerleader Committee came up with dozens of chants and slogans, and the sign makers put them in print on signs and placards. No standard “UAW on Strike” for this crew! “Don’t Get Sick Tonight: Blue Cross is on Strike,” and “No Contract, No Work” were only the first of many.

Within a week, the company had taken steps to bring an injunction to limit pickets. During this first week, strikers were determined to keep the exempts from going in. Someone put nails down in the driveway into the parking garage and the disabled cars and tow trucks held up entry to the garage. Strikers blocked cars in militant actions and Blue Cross had to get city police to escort the exempts’ cars in. Strikers would mass behind the police as the police braced against the front bumpers of the cars and walked backwards in front of the car to ensure strikers were not hurt. The women strikers were good at calling out to the police to support them, and many did.

Over time, there was a general acceptance by strikers that they couldn’t prevent the exempts from going in, and perhaps doing union workers’ work. Following the serving of the injunction at a mass meeting where the President, on a chair, didn’t even stop speaking to take the paperwork from the UAW legal department, the strikers said, OK, so we won’t block, we’ll “roll” around the building, move and move and get hundreds down here to surround the tower, and the Jefferson Building and Edison Plaza. . . .

“Rolls” became a standard operating procedure for the strike. Hundreds of picketers would form lines to encircle the buildings with chanting and singing. Night rolls were the creation of the Cheerleader team, who discovered that weekend events at Cobo Hall and downtown locations made perfect places to roll groups of picketers with signs and flashlights across Jefferson Avenue! They were happy to see that even suburban residents were learning about how dirty Blue Cross was. “Blue Cross, Double Cross…” – as they had to slow down and stop for the parade to pass.

Badgering and hectoring of strikers continued by exempts and managers who were hostile. “You next for the ax!” was a favorite retort. But friendships and good relationships between union and exempt workers also brought many exempts to the strikers’ side as allies. There were even internal newsletters put out by exempts, mocking Blues management.

Union bureaucracy manouevres to control the Strike

In the beginning of the strike, UAW President Owen Bieber and people from his office participated in a major demonstration in front of corporate headquarters and called on local unions to join in. But that quickly stopped when attacks against the strike began. And the internal divisions they fostered continued throughout the strike.

A UAW international rep immediately incited the Local Union Executive Board to prevent Bier from using any paper and equipment for printing purposes, despite the fact she was president. All reams of paper were opened and marked with a felt pen so each piece could be identified!

When the UAW representative from the Strike Assistance Program came on location, he bullied everyone connected with the strike committee. He kicked the strike committee out of the local hall basement and bullied St. Andrews Hall management into dropping the strike headquarters. He set up the strike check payments in a location miles from the downtown local union and strike locations. He set up Check Writing and a Community Service Committee separated out from the strike committees and encouraged hostility toward the leaders and strikers. He cut off strike benefits to strike committee members and didn’t give it back until he was threatened by the workers. Finally, he even tried to take away the money that was donated to the strike by auto workers and others.

Moving through October and November

As the strike moved through October and into November, the numbers of strikers participating in the strike committee and other committees fell off as workers took up part-time jobs or were unable to afford to come to the lines as often. The divisions incited by the International and its supporters began to take their toll. But while the attacks were difficult, they didn’t stop the strikers. They developed new allies, like the local bar owner who allowed the use of his bar for daily strike meetings.

At the beginning of October, a plan was afoot to put the local union under International Union supervision in a receivership. A large meeting of the Local Union degenerated into shouting and a near fight as two sides, the new and old administrations, fought to control decisions. This meeting and the divisions were the subject of articles that hit the Detroit newspapers.

Shortly after, a popular newscaster put an article in print calling for the removal of the President, and red-baiting in the press and on the lines followed.

Then agitation for a return to work was started behind the scenes. But the fact that a meeting was held, where workers discussed collectively and voted together in front of each other on whether or not to return, kept the strike from breaking down. Those who were more determined reinforced the others. They said, “We have come this far; I’m not going back for less than what I have now.”

Many strikers came into the meeting not wanting to stay out any longer, but they ended up voting not to go back. If they had not discussed their problems openly, if there had not been a vote to cement the sentiment to stay out, despite the difficulties, workers may have individually decided to give up. The attitude that workers had to make their own decisions through collective decision and vote protected their future.

Strikers’ morale was reinforced by demonstrations that included a guest visit to the lines by Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians (they were on strike as well) and special family days, and events hosted by the autoworker local unions – and also by the fact that Blue Cross was less and less able to respond to customer concerns.

Then, a scandal broke loose implicating the Blues upper management in schemes that gave perks, like money for condominiums or cars, to top executives and those on the Board of Directors, including two UAW officials – the famous “Condos and Cadillacs” scandal. The roof blew off!

The strike was reinvigorated, and Blue Cross customers expressed sympathy in the news for strikers who were working for a company that was pinching pennies for them and buying condos for the executives!

Auto workers reinforce the fight

Certainly, the presence of some auto workers and their support on picket lines helped the strikers through difficult times in the strike. This also made it harder for the International Union to directly and openly attack the strike. Some auto unions came to the line with roses for the picketers and set up events to support the strike like spaghetti dinners at Locals 160 and 600. Gift baskets were distributed towards the end of the strike with food collected by auto workers and other workers.

UAW Local 594 in Pontiac, headed by Don Douglas, and Local 160 at the GM Tech Center, run by Pete Kelly, showed up with contingents of workers, as did Local 600 officials Russ Leone and General Baker. They hosted benefit dinners and attended events on the picket lines. David Yettaw at Saginaw Steering Gear, Jim Coakley at Local 1200, and Bill Parker of Local 1700, as well as Jerry Tucker, publicly supported strikers. Having other union militants on the line who were not intimidated by the International Union’s red-baiting was important to protecting the strike, reinforcing the workers’ renewed determination after the back-to-work movement failed. And in the end, there were some people in the International Union who tacitly supported the strike.

Finally, Blue Cross came in with an offer for a contract that was acceptable to the workers and they voted to accept it.

Conclusion

The strikers were able to hold off a long, concerted attack by the health care giant. Unlikely as that was, in an atmosphere surrounded by the daily concessions policy of UAW bargaining, the strike had a markedly different result from many strikes that preceded it. It was not crushed or defeated in spite of the length of the strike and the power of the health care magnates. The workers were able to secure a contract that may not have contained major gains, but it did not give up the concessions that Blue Cross had sought and that the International reps had said were necessary to accept. In a period where auto workers were being hammered with concessions, when others thought it impossible to make a fight against them, Blue Cross workers got decent wage increases (rather than the uncertain bonuses auto workers were getting) and were able to retain the old time-off-the-job programs like sick time and personal time and flexible start time with little modification. For the quality of life of the predominately female workforce, this was a major victory. And this strike in 1987 had its impact on subsequent contracts, when Blue Cross, having learned its lesson in ‘87, decided not to risk another strike.

Certainly, there were many factors that contributed to the relative success of the strike. There is no recipe for success and every situation is different.

To the strikers’ good fortune, the BCBSM bosses didn’t feel comfortable enough to launch an ugly attack with violence and physical intimidation. They were restrained in their actions by the weight the UAW could have brought as the largest Blue Cross customer, if Blue Cross stepped over that line. Whatever the UAW International leadership was doing in opposing the strikers, it probably could not have accepted an overt, violent attack on one of its locals, not above all in Detroit, with all those auto workers watching what was happening.

The fact that the Blues was a publicly controlled company and was in constant political hot water with its rate increases brought support from the general population, especially when the “Cadillacs and Condos” scandal broke out. And the location of the Blues in the middle of the city where it was possible to create a scene publicly, was an advantage for strikers.

But above all, the tenacity of the women workers and their ability to shrug off hardships was the dominant factor in the strike. In spite of attacks and hardships, women and men alike refused to give up, or to give back what they had. Without this tenacity, without the courage to fight, of course, nothing is possible.

Finally, Sally Bier, who had been elected president, was a socialist militant with a revolutionary policy, and she had people around her who most wholeheartedly disagreed with the unions’ longstanding idea of how to run a union and who should organize and run a strike. That freed Blue Cross workers to make the fight they made.

Accustomed to being told on a regular basis that they couldn’t succeed, that they didn’t have the brains or the status to be anyone, workers heard the exact opposite from the strike leaders. They heard that it could be done, and that they were the ones who could do it: they knew in their brains and their hearts how to organize and fight and win! Being female and running a household requires intelligence and skill and the ability to shrug off problems and work around obstacles. Surviving as workers at the Blues requires more of the same.

Mad and tired of their conditions, the workers stepped forward. Their spirit, their committees, their chants, their anger, their rolls around downtown and other parts of Detroit represented a fight easily comparable to some of the most combative strikes fought by men in an earlier period.

The working class has lost out, time and time again – both before and after the Blue Cross strike – from the lack of revolutionary leadership in the factories and workplaces. Our class deeply needs new leadership with the revolutionary perspective that capitalism, driven by the profit system, must be taken down and replaced with a collective, socialist society and that workers have the absolute right to exercise their power to secure what they need, be it a wage increase, a benefit, or a society that benefits humans, not corporations.

The strike, collectively led by the workers, collectively deciding on voting on all matters, is a small reflection of what workers can accomplish through their own struggle, once freed from leadership that keeps telling them to wait for deliverance. And while workers today, including at the Blues, may be demoralized and feel that change of this kind is no longer possible, it is not true. Had the strike fight been picked up and spread throughout the Detroit region, and from there, far beyond, we may have seen the working class move forward after 1987, instead of moving backwards as it still is today. That didn’t happen. But with revolutionary leadership, it will be possible for workers, including at Blue Cross, to organize and fight. The Blue Cross strike can serve as an example of what is possible, still today, when a different policy, one resting on the capacities of the workers themselves, is followed.

This is taken from the November-December issue of The Spark group’s magazine Class Struggle, here.  They also publish a fortnightly newspaper and a bunch of regular individual workplace bulletins.

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