Monday, June 23, 2008


I have wasted a considerable amount of virtual ink on declaiming against the certainty of "activists" for social justice. I should have started with myself as I am certainly not purer than Caesar's wife.

I once was, briefly, an "activist" about 9 years ago. I was part of a campaign to convince people to boycott a Colorado bank that was subsidizing the efforts of a steel company in Pueblo to continue its illegal lockout of workers who had protested their working conditions.

At least, that is the story I told as I leafletted people going in and out of the bank branch I and a few of my confreres monitored. The story was more complex: that bank was our target, but it was only the leader--one of several banks in a consortium--that was helping the steel company. "Lockout" is a bit of a term of art: it was a lockout because the company refused to negotiate with the union after it had struck over working conditions. At some point, the strike became a lockout. It was a strike over "working conditions" and not "wages" because the company was doing some allegedly atrocious things to its employees but also because strikers who strike for "wages" have fewer legal protections than if they strike for working conditions. The National Labor Relations Board ruled the steel company to be in violation of several "unfair labor practices"; therefore, the lockout was illegal. But the company was appealing the decision.

It was very hard to explain these particulars to passersby and customers of the bank. (Indeed, I'm fuzzy now, 9 years later, over the exact details (and I may be wrong in some of them).) So, the protest became an exercise of pulling the heartstrings of those people whom we asked to boycott the bank. On two occasions, we led a demonstration against the bank, with picket signs and slogans like "Union Busting....Is Disgusting." Of course, the fliers we handed out contained a proviso that the group I was working with was not affiliated with the steelworkers' union (because if we had been, our action might have been construed as an illegal, secondary boycott).

On those big protest days, a large group of people accompanied us. Their goal was to close their accounts all at the same time to show solidarity with th e cause. I was not inside the bank (I was busy "protesting"), but I heard that at least some of the people shouted at the tellers when their turn came to appear at the teller window "I'm closing my account because I don't like what the bank is doing to steelworkers!!!" (or something to that effect). Now, I had been a teller a couple years before that, and I can tell you it's not very pleasant when customers shout at you when you are just doing your job.

Was what I did right? The company's practices were really abhorrent and apparently documented: forced overtime, disregard of safety practices, hiring of illegal replacement workers while a strike was still going on. I don't know what eventually happened, but I wouldn't be surprised if the company, out of some technicality, declared bankruptcy instead of paying for its NLRB violations and instead of paying its backwages to those who lost their jobs. I have no sympathy for the company.

But when I leafleted the people entering and leaving the bank, for the sake of "clarity" I had to elide a lot of important distinctions--the difference between illegal labor practices as enumerated in Taft-Hartley and the original Wagner Act and simply unethical but perhaps not illegal practices; the bank's complicity in the strike and the fact that the bank's employees, while perhaps drawing a paycheck from the bank, were not as complicit as the bank itself; the insufficiency of the NLRB system of labor adjudication at the same time we were citing decisions of the NLRB to support our cause; the theoretical possibility that I was part of an effort to promote what was, in all senses except the legal sense, a secondary boycott.

I felt like I was being dishonest, not telling people the whole story, even though I believed I was fighting for the right. Again, let me state for the record that I continue to believe that the company's practices were abhorrent, and I wish nothing but the best for the steelworkers.

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