Interviewed by Andy Piascik
Jane LaTour has been active in the labor movement since the 1960s. She has worked in factories and on staff for several unions including District 65, one of New York City’s best-known left-led unions. LaTour also worked for the Association for Union Democracy and the Wagner Labor Archives at New York University and is the author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City.
LaTour has written for Znet, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, The Indypendent, Labor Press, The Journal of Labor and Society, and many other publications and websites. She is a long-time board member of the New York Labor History Association and for many years edited its newsletter Work History News. She also edited Hard Hat News, a magazine for rank and file workers in the building trades, and is working on a book about rank and file activism.
Piascik: When and how did you get involved in the labor movement?
LaTour: I left my middle-class home toward the end of my first year of college and began working in factories to support myself. During my years as a factory worker, I got a world-class education about America that changed my life and set me on a different course. I have described those first experiences with myself as a visiting anthropologist trying to understand the strange folkways of the people I encountered.
I quickly became offended by the large and small daily indignities I witnessed all around me: managers addressing women old enough to be their mothers as “girls;” African-American workers sent to the hottest, hardest jobs in the plants; being told by management right before we were due to leave for vacation that payroll wouldn’t be ready and we would have to make the long trek back to the plant if we wanted our paychecks; the assumptions of managers of their greater intelligence and ability than us the workers; the extreme ways that the professional men and supervisors spoke to us in really demeaning and disgusting ways about sex.
Then there were various incidents that remain memorable like one with an engineer I encountered for the first time at a Christmas party when I was working at Hewlett-Packard who told me I wasn’t smart enough to go to college. The discrimination, the injustices and all the rest of what I encountered quickly made me a rebel.
Piascik: What workplace actions were you involved in?
LaTour: I was always a proponent of direct action in the workplace. Observing conditions and getting to know the people who worked alongside me led to strategies of working together for common objectives. I never actually studied my various union contracts (and here I am not recommending that, just describing what occurred), but would think about a plan where we could all work together toward our goal.
Even before I took part in an exhilarating union-sanctioned UPS wildcat strike as a Teamster in Edison, New Jersey, I loved the power of a walkout. I led walk-outs at a factory in Philadelphia where we had no heat! The windows were all broken and that first cold night, people told me: You get used to it. No. That is a great memory: working on the night shift where, without so many supervisors, we were able to forge close bonds. We even had a drive-out and I well remember seeing all of the car lights ahead of me as we left the factory.
At first, the men were being macho, but then solidarity prevailed. We all left together. The next night: voila! They had fixed the windows and we had a warm work site. There were lots of other similar actions. I learned so much from the people I worked with and one in particular I have written about, a woman named Dolly from West Virginia who taught me about class-consciousness, as in: Which side are you on? Dolly taught me that there are two sides.
Piascik: What were some of the differences between organizing in the workplace and doing so as a union staffer after you went to work for District 65 in New York City?
LaTour: Working for District 65 beginning in 1977 as first a colonizer or salt, as it’s frequently called, and then as a union organizer, taught me a whole other set of lessons. In many ways I was more constricted working for a union than I was for the companies. However, I was sometimes able to use my position to take direct measures. Sad to say, a lot or most of that came from seeing the glaring inconsistencies and problems within the union. I found that there was a great divide between the union staff and leadership on the one hand, and the members. This manifested itself in so many ways and it brought about a great deal of animosity.
Rather than everyone being on the same team, the members would often be fighting against the union. One of my first experiences of this came when I replaced a business agent who went on medical leave. His shops consisted of some where organizers were trying to sign up the workers and others that had already voted Yes for the union where a business agent would take over for the negotiations. Well, the shops were in an uproar. One had even filed charges against the union at the NLRB. At one point, I went to a shop meeting and the shop steward refused to sit up front with me and the other union representatives. I saw so many other things that taught me important lessons. I got fired from District 65 after three years. I was told it was because I favored the workers over the union. I didn’t work for another union until the last job of my career.
Piascik: What experiences did you have in the factory and on the union staff that led you to put women’s issues front and center in Sisters in the Brotherhoods and in many of your articles?
LaTour: Early on, as both a factory worker and a union staffer, I had so many experiences where the power grid was distinctly divided and men, though not all men, were the beneficiaries. One electronics shop I organized for District 65 was an all-female workforce. When we had our first meeting after the landslide election, the women nominated the sole male (who had NOT taken part in the organizing drive) to be the shop steward. That was an eye-opener.
I worked with women on assembly lines who were so talented and smart, but when it came to putting themselves forward for any position of leadership, they had no confidence in their ability to do the job. There was one experience at District 65 that was quite startling, given my youthful level of ignorance. We organized a women’s group for the staff and had our first meeting. It was quite exciting. We invited everybody: the clericals, the switchboard operators, the organizers, and had a great discussion, with plans for the future. However, the director at the time, a woman, put an end to this: No more meetings. I seem to recall that she felt it would undermine the overall mission of the union.
Piascik: Any others?
LaTour: The biggest ah-ha experience I had came after I was fired by District 65. I was invited by one of my labor professors at Rutgers University to speak to his class on the topic of What was it like to be a female organizer for a union? That made me really think about it and I realized I mostly went along with the way things were and didn’t question the relationships and arrangements within the union.
One big example was when I worked with the Revlon organizing team in New Jersey. This was the shop with the greatest number of District 65’s members and they had a fine and experienced organizing and negotiating team led by a formidable woman named Marge Orr. It was common when we were in meetings in the office of our organizing director for him to send me out to get pencils, coffee, or whatever else might be needed. However, if I wasn’t there, he would send Marge out. Sometimes both of us were sent to get the missing whatever. Fair enough to send me out when I was the least senior person, though I would still be sent out even when I was the lead organizer. But Marge? No way was that not about gender. This, along with other eye-opening experiences at Rutgers and at the Association for Union Democracy’s Women’s Project, led me to my concentration on working women.
Piascik: Can you talk about some of the efforts to transform unions into organizations of the rank and file that you’ve written about and that are the subject of the book you’re writing?
LaTour: The book I am working on is based on oral histories I did with members of various rank and file groups over the decades. All along the way, I have encountered these people who have made it their mission to stand up against the injustices they saw within their unions as well as their workplaces. At the White Lung Association, a non-profit group that focused on problems resulting from asbestos exposure in the workplace, it would oftentimes be the rank and file union member or a participant in an organized rank and file group, and not a union staffer or officer, who would bring their problem to us. As I wrote about in Sisters in the Brotherhoods, this is how I met Irene Soloway from the Carpenters’ union and many others.
Piascik: How did the work you did at the Association for Union Democracy and the Wagner Labor Archives relate?
LaTour: Working for the Women’s Project at the AUD was a great opportunity to meet these reformers. As I described in my book, working with the women who were organizing within their unions and doing those nontraditional blue collar jobs led me to the realization that I needed to interview them, not just advocate for them.
Likewise, when I worked at the Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, Debra Bernhardt hired me to process the collection of the late, great Burton H. Hall, who had just passed away. His whole career as a lawyer was spent representing dissidents within their unions in their various fights to improve their organizations. Debra suggested that I interview some of these insurgents and that’s how I came to meet so many reformers, to capture their struggles on audiotape, and to collect their records for the labor archives.
Piascik: Are there any tentative lessons you’d like to share from your work with rank and filers?
LaTour: These struggles have so much to tell us about the state of the labor movement at this critical juncture in our history. Why do so few stand up in opposition when the bulk of the membership goes along with the status quo? What were they fighting for? What issues propelled them to spend their time, money, and work for decades to reform their unions? And quite simply, what was their vision for labor?
One great example is the District Council of Painters in New York. The numerous insurgents had such a broad vision of what they wanted to see in the future for labor. Another great example is one of the first reform groups in the Teamsters who called themselves FORE — Fear of Reprisal Ends. The men in this mob-controlled union did such exciting work to oppose the mobsters running their union. Very few of them are still alive.
One of the summations I always say when asked about this is: They were fighting for the labor movement we need. Not the one we have. One last element of this project is captured in the subtitle of the book I’m working on: “The Limits of Reform in Organized Labor.”
Piascik: Why is rank and file unionism so important?
LaTour: Without the participation of rank and file union members, there is no “ownership.” There is no investment, no feeling that your actions and presence make a difference in affecting outcomes. Apathy is a problem that labor unions have long struggled with and it stems from this division between the membership and the leadership.
One experience at District 65 really encapsulates this divide. We were having a staff meeting and the female director I mentioned earlier got a phone call from a plant in reference to the union members refusing to work overtime. The director told the business agent on the phone that he was to make it perfectly clear that they must work the OT. So here we were, sitting in an air-conditioned union office while the men at the plant were doing hot and heavy labor all day. And it was their preference to not do more time, but to leave after they completed their 8-hour shifts. It seems that she had been too long removed from the shop floor and the realities of doing that kind of hard labor. Union members and their voices have to be part of the process.
Piascik: Many union staffers come from activist backgrounds and many would call themselves socialists, communists or radicals, yet many of these people are the most committed to staff and officer-dominated unions. Do you have any insights about why this is so?
LaTour: This answer should be taken in sight of a few facts. I have sympathy for my many friends and colleagues who place their faith in reform from the bottom-up, or in the unions as they are and as they engage in the many battles for survival. My own approach might possibly be informed by my upbringing as a Catholic so, call the psychiatrist or give me a hair shirt, but this is my take, with no aspersions cast: I just do not believe that the current structure and culture of our unions will get us to where we need to go, to have that countervailing force of working people arrayed against the many forces engaged in the war on workers. The salaries of officers and staffers, the ability to give themselves raises, that great divide between union members and union leadership, as well as so many other problems like gross corruption and other forms of smaller-scale institutional corruption, as I see it, present too great an obstacle to get us to where we need to go. The culture of entitlement and other problems create barriers that are insurmountable for labor as presently constituted.
Piascik: Some of the contradictions between rank and filers on the one hand and staffers and officers on the other were on display in some of the recent teachers’ strikes. What are some of the things teachers might do to continue their independent initiatives?
LaTour: Keep voting with their feet; keep building support within the community; keep building those natural alliances; keep exposing the contradictions all around them; and keep linking their struggles to those of others; learn from history and keep using their creativity, imagination, and resilience. There is a huge middle that is suffering. These “spontaneous” wildcat strikes give hope and provide inspiration for others. So just keep it going.