On Saturday, June 4 the Maine State Council of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM or simply “the Machinists”) hosted their Biennial Conference in South Portland. The conference featured twelve keynote speakers, including US Representative Jared Golden, President of the Maine Senate Troy Jackson, General Vice Presidents of the IAM, plus a brief video appearance by US Senator Angus King.
Conspicuously absent was Governor Janet Mills, whose offer to speak had been refused by the IAM. Mills has taken a curious anti-labor stance as governor. In 2021, she vetoed LD 1711, a worker-friendly binding arbitration bill to which she had privately pledged support. Legislative Director Hasan Solomon says that Machinist leadership has plans for a “come-to-Jesus meeting” with Governor Mills in the near future. If she cares enough about what the Machinists think to attempt to play both sides of the field, she may care enough to stop doing that immediately.
In 2020, the Machinists struck successfully against Bath Iron Works. BIW is Maine’s fourth-largest employer, as well as a principal manufactory for US Naval Destroyers. Each and every year, Bath Iron Works receives a contract from the Department of Defense to produce one Destroyer. Over 60% of the labor force of BIW has served in the military. In fact, the IAM has the largest percentage of veterans of any major American union and this, of course, informs the politics of the organization at large. There is power in a union, and it is for this reason that welders in Bath get to tell the US Department of Defense what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it. Should the Federal Government change its mind about Bath’s Destroyer contract (as they have threatened several times) the Machinists send in their team of lobbyists to change it right back. The union-military bond runs deep in the IAM and informs both its influence on Democrat politics as well as its estrangement from younger generations of workers. It is a horizontal cross-section of the military-industrial complex. The counterpoint to this is simple enough: what else are you going to build in America in the 21st century? An industrial union in a deindustrializing nation must accomplish two things to remain afloat: keep the remaining industrial workers happy enough to remain with the union, and recruit new labor forces to stem the bleeding. IAM leadership believes that they can accomplish both by becoming the nation’s largest Veterans Service Organization, offering legal assistance to dues-paying members in dealing with the VA as a benefit of membership. In their endeavor to court younger members from more diverse fields, the IAM is undergoing their second rebrand in the decade, this time with Purpose Institute, a Houston-based corporate think tank. The kids love it when you contract with a corporate think tank.
For the Machinists, COVID-19 has been both nightmare and dream. The IAM saw an overnight loss of 95,000 out of 350,000 dues-paying members in March 2020. Conversely, the death of 1 million Americans to COVID-19 has produced sizable labor shortages nationwide. Chain restaurants now prominently advertise $15, $16 starting hourly wages in desperate attempts to fill sprawling schedules. Additionally, the workplace safety guidelines published by the Federal Government and routinely flaunted by business owners have catalyzed conversations around worker safety that could previously only be expected of bloody messes on the factory floor. Thus, the pandemic has produced substantial change in the way American workers perceive their own work. Once Capital admits that labor is essential to the function of our economy, the secret is out. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers,” and like denigration doesn’t cut it anymore. Even if American workers are deeply confused about who is actually causing their problems, they can recognize that they are not steering the ship and that their health and safety are not remote priorities for whoever is. Capital will seek to subvert this frustration in any way possible because it presents the possibility for real class consciousness. IAM membership has been rebounding gradually since March 2020. “By next year, we’ll be back,” Hasan Solomon told me.
If there is one thing I wish to pass on from the Machinists to the Democratic Socialists of Southern Maine, it is this: this moment is not going to last. The spread of union votes in Starbucks locations has been nothing short of explosive, and the tactics of Workers United warrant greater study. It remains to be seen if we can replicate this feat in other service labor forces. The Machinists are trying. There is, in the works, a major initiative to produce cascading unionization efforts within Apple stores, all under the IAM umbrella. 68% of Americans say they support unions, the highest level since the 60’s. While the bravery of the unionizing Starbucks workers should not be understated, this is aided slightly by a National Labor Relations Board which is broadly sympathetic to union interests. If this past week’s presentations are to be believed, union leadership loves Joe Biden. It seemed like almost everyone speaking wanted you to know that we are witnessing “the most labor-friendly NLRB in 50 years”, save some variance in the number of years. However, Joe Biden is polling at 32% popularity, so this is certain not to last. If the next president is anything like Donald Trump, or is himself Donald Trump, both the fledgeling unions amongst Amazon and Starbucks workers, as well as the established unionists across the American Federation of Labor are in for a lot of hurt.
There are a lot of ways this could come to a sudden end. If the DSA seeks to foster worker power broadly, we need a plan for when there aren’t any Starbucks left to unionize. We need a plan for when the US Department of Labor finds that some high-profile union pension trustees have violated the Employee Retirement Security Income Act and public opinion flags a little. The political climate in which these new unions find themselves filing first contract could be dramatically different than the one in which they’ve won their union elections. As a union with a history as long as the IAM would know, friends are the ones that will stab you in the back. Electoral politics offer unions no short supply of fair-weather friends. What unions require is many staunch allies amongst the working class. The health and success of these labor organizations is vital. Vital to the members for whom they are securing benefits and higher wages for right now, and vital to any hope for a more just, democratic future.
Tzara Kane is a Communist. She makes coffee for tourists.