An ode to brick throwers and scab baiters.

I rarely hear of strikes now, except those that end in disaster. None of the unions I represent has gone on strike in ten years, and I wonder if any of them ever will. Until the Eastern Airlines strike this year, I thought I might never see a strike again. Strikes in the United States last year fell to their lowest level in four decades. In 1974, which was no great year for strikes, there were 424 of them. In 1988 there were just 40, which is about the same as the number of prison riots.

A few months ago I saw my friend V., who is a lawyer with the Mine workers. As labor lawyers, we sit and gasp in horror that there are no strikes any more. Our friends, people our age, in other professions, do not see the Orwellian honor of it. They think, if they think about it at all: "No strikes? What's so bad about that?" The question is so stupid, I can hardly deal with it.

V. and I are both about 40 years old, but we "remember" the 1930s. That was our formative experience, not the 1960s. I hoped at the Mineworkers, at least, they were still going on strike. I said to V., "Are they still striking?"

He said, "Only in eastern Kentucky." In eastern Kentucky, they would not even know Reagan is no longer president.

I said, "Anywhere else?"

He shook his head and said, in a soft Alabama drawl, "It's a bad time." Most people in labor say it that way, softly, mantra-like: "It's a bad time." But, really, I'm not sure it will ever be a "good time" again.

No one can strike now, because there have never been more scabs. The scabs today are not just the unemployed, but those with jobs, too—people getting $3.75 an hour frying burgers, people who can triple their wage by helping to break a strike. And they are everywhere. As I write, unemployment is roughly five percent. In the old days, if unemployment were only five percent, there would be strikes all over a "union" town like Chicago, where I work. Instead, in the past year, I have heard less about strikes than about lockouts, when the employer locks out the union and almost begs it to strike.

When some people talk about labor's decline, they mention President Reagan's successful fight against the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, the political climate, etc., but PATCO) as a cause pales next to Reaganomics. Reaganomics created a pool of scabs as big as Lake Michigan. The United States in the '80s lost one out of three jobs in heavy industry, especially the old high-wage industries like steel and machinery. The administration's policies helped place U.S. heavy industry in a double bind: the high dollar made foreign imports cheaper, and high interest rates made it harder for industry to borrow money for modernization. It was the Midwest, labor's stronghold, that really suffered. Nobody outside the Midwest paid any attention. It was like an earthquake with a press blackout. I wanted to write letters to friends back East, get them to organize a Marshall Plan to rebuild the Midwest.

Now the wrecking is over, but in the post-Reagan, two-tier economy, the scabs are everywhere. After all, the ex-steelworkers have not gone away. The Steelworkers, in the Chicago area alone, lost over 70,000 members in the '80s. Under Carter they were union men, and then under Reagan they became boys: dishwasher boys, bellboys, shoeshine boys. Some of them are still in . . . well, "manufacturing." They dip their hands in strange chemicals, for five dollars an hour, with no health insurance. I meet old steelworkers who tell me they are "unemployed"— they honestly forget they have jobs. Some once made 15 dollars an hour and worked for a company that had a welfare state like Sweden's. Then they were union; I often wonder now if some of them would scab.

I read in the Wall Street Journal last June that despite a strong economy, unions that year might have to negotiate wage concessions. The Journal asked, almost incredulous: "How can unions be so ineffective, when the economy is growing steadily and living-cost rises would seem to justify raises of four percent or so?" The reason is that any union member who goes on strike now can expect to lose his job permanently, in 24 hours.

Take what happened at CDS Midwest, a shipping company in Chicago. The company had 90 or so employees, many of them over 40 years old. As a result, CDS was facing a big pension bill. When its labor contract was about to expire, CDS started hiring scabs, even though the union members said that they did not want to strike. Since they wouldn't strike, CDS had to lock them out. Then, after the lockout, it reopened again, in just a few days, with a brand-new complement of fresh, young scabs. It had replaced all the old workers who had had the audacity not to strike.

Sure, I know: How can they replace "skilled" workers? I once said that to a president of a local union, and he laughed. "Skilled? These guys have no real 'skills.' A man's got his seniority, and that's all he's got," His local, by the way, really did have skilled workers, but I was missing the point: when a man goes on strike, he is betting his whole life.

One union that took that gamble was at Danley Machine Ibol in Cicero. Illinois. The strike at Danley was the old-fashioned kind: it was the good war, lasting nine months, like trench war in Flanders. A strike that lasts that long changes people utterly: it is like a sea voyage. Men get sea legs and become catlike and grow beards. Under the beards, they are still suburban middle-class people, but now they are starving, picking up bricks.

The Danley strike became a rallying point for most of us in organized labor in Chicago. First, because it almost broke the best local in the city. Second, because it was such a long, drawn out public agony. But most of all, because this was the one local that despite Reagan, despite everything, still wanted to fight, just like in the '30s. The rest of us in town, who did not want to fight, felt that at least, out of shame, we should go out there to Danley and give witness.

Danley makes machinery for the auto industry. In 1984, in machinery and in steel, employers were demanding concessions, and Danley, like everyone else, went to the union with a long list of "givebacks." It was not a big deal: all the unions were expected to go along.

Joe Romano, the Danley local president, whom I had known since the early 1970s, said to me later: "I took their demands, and then I went to our guys, and I laid it out to them. And I said, 'Look, here's what they want.' And one guy after another stood up and said, 'We've got no right to give that up. Our fathers, our grandfathers fought for that. We can't give that up.' " So the local elected to strike, by a vote of 670 to 12, when almost no other local did. It was going to be a nightmare.

Laramie Avenue in Cicero, where the strike was, would be a good place for a prison riot. There are miles of machinery plants, wire fencing, an American flag or two. and grim Gestapo-type signs that say things like "Solvent Building in Rear." The suburbanites who drive in and out of here every day seem to be on a kind of work-release program in reverse.

The Danley strike, like many others, was a waiting game and a numbers game. The local had 800 members: almost all of them went on strike and 200 or so of them later "crossed over" to the plant. But Danley could not operate until it had 100 or so more crossovers, or new hires, who were not just "skilled" but "highly skilled." These were people who could not be easily hired off the street. But it was not such a large number. Danley had to wait for the number of crossovers to add up, until the balance would tip and the factory could start up, like a crippled battleship, and sail away from the strike. Every striker would think aboul this, all day, for nine months: "What's the magic number? When does this fucking thing tip?"

They also thought about the cops. Throughout the strike, Danley had a private police force, as well as Chicago cops (off-duty, in theory) facing the strikers. This army, like the Pinkertons, who busted strikes in the 1890s {and still do), gave the strike a certain fin-de-siecle charm. They know how to push, to bait, to provoke the strikers, and then they call in the cops to make the arrests. They know "strike judo," and the suburbanites, who do not, who are amateurs, lunge and fall flat on their faces. Then the cops pick them tip.

Sometimes at the office, 1 get brochures from the new yuppie union-busting consultants—like "Asset Protection Services," The brochures never say "union busting." They say instead that there will be a "frank discussion of de-unionization." I often wonder what these conferences are like. The "frank" part, I suppose, is when they tell them to go out and hire the Pinkertons, like Andrew Carnegie did in the 1890s.

There was only one real act of violence in the strike. One day while sitting in his car at a stoplight, Joe Romano was attacked and beaten. Two men in the car ahead of him simply walked back, smashed the car window, and tried to pull him out. Joe did not do too badly. He had a sawed-off pool stick in the back seat. Still, it bothered me that as a young lawyer, in the '70s, I had worked to get people like Joe into union office, and that now, in the '80s, they were being pulled out of their cars and beaten.

Hunger is the biggest problem. While miners in rural areas can grow food, Danley workers in Cicero could not. They had no Food Stamps or unemployment benefits. They only had the "strike fund." Sometimes, on Sunday, there was a rally at the gym, and other unions gave what they could to the strike fund. We all had our own problems. I was vaguely aware that some of the people in the gym were hungry.

Then the local got the cheese. As I hear it. the cheese almost eucharistically came from a Catholic priest. Nobody knows. I am simply told that a big truck, with several tons of cheese, pulled up to the dock and began unloading. The Danley management and the security guards stood across the street, watching in horror. But too much cheese is had for you. One man said, "It stops you up, you can't take a shit. We had guys rolling on the ground." Too much cheese could have stopped up the strike. The local began swapping it: their main goal was fruit, bananas, anything with firepower.

So the strike went on and on. Families went hungry, lost nine months of income, and for what, really? There is a point when strikers know that even if they "win," they can never make up for all they've lost. Here they are, going hungry, and what is the point? No concessions? Everybody else made concessions. Why not them? But by now, they are no longer suburbanites. Now they arc hunger artists.

At last, Danley and the local signed a contract. While this was a victory—there was even a small wage increase— the local had barely survived. Many strikers had lost their jobs through permanent replacements. The strikers who came back were a minority, a rump faction, of the Danley workers.

But even though the strike was over, Danley kept fighting. Some of the scabs had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to "de-certify" the union as the bargaining agent. Danley now maintained that the union no longer had the majority support of the employees. The Board would conduct the "de-cert," and if the majority voted against the union, the union would be out.

In a way, the settlement of the strike had been a trap. Now the local, depleted, seemed doomed, because it needed the votes of the crossovers and scabs. The scabs should have hated the local. Every day they had been called "shit," "asshole," and other names unspeakable even to the children of Cicero. Yet when the "de-cert" vote was announced, the Danley workers voted, by a landslide, lo keep the local.

The scabs bad voted to go union. We call them scabs, but who are they, really? Often they are the blacks, the Latinos, who would love to be in labor. Often they are, in a sense, the poor, and maybe it is only as scabs that the poor can inherit the earth. All the better if, as at Danley, they can inherit the local, too.

Now the strike was over, and it was time for a party. On March 18 is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Since the strike, on every St. Joseph's Day the local has had a banquet, or party, to remember the strike, remember its dead, Joe Romano sends out a letter of invitation, which is grave and dignified. Everyone who gets it tries to go. The food is astounding. This must be the only local in America that deserves two Michelin stars.

Every year, when I call the hall to check the time, I hear an old man's voice, with a thick Italian accent. Already, my mouth is watering. At the hall, people spill out on the sidewalk, and I squeeze through them to eat. I try the lasagna, the linguine, the lamb, the eggplant, the olives, the apple cake. And there are still two tables of food I have not even reached.

I remember the first St. Joseph's Day best. People kept coming up to Joe and hugging him. I have never seen so much embracing. I always wish at times like this I could have been born Italian. I asked Joe, "Do you think people's politics changed as a result of the strike?"

He said, "Oh yes, oh yes . . . it was wonderful what happened lo people . . . I mean, like the wives. At first, they hated the strike. No money coming in, all of that. They came down here to the hall and said, 'Jesus, what's going on?' Then they saw what was happening. They saw the cops pushing around their husbands. After a while, the wives were the biggest supporters of the strike."

Joe looked out at the crowd and said, "You know, in a union you've got to give people something." I was thinking about getting lasagna. "You know." he said, "during the strike, we had Thanksgiving dinner here. We had to. People didn't have any money, it was someplace to go."

I knew what he meant. Once, before (he strike, the families here had been strangers to each other. Then they starved together, and now they were friends. They took trips together, went to dinners together. It was the experience of starving that the local had given them: paradoxically, on St. Joseph's Day, it had them coming back for more.

Some of the men in the local, on weekends, drove around to other strikes, to visit strikers, to give them food. They remembered how other people had done it for them. On the first St. Joseph's Day, the men from the other locals came back here to eat. Joe introduced them, and they stood up, embarrassed, and everyone cheered. Mostly they were old men, retirees, not from the Danley local, but just from "the Union," the big one. It was all one "Union," I realized, sitting there, full of pasta. These old men had taught us a lesson, and now the rest of us had to carry on, I felt such peace and contentment. "My God," I thought, "the Danley strike was wonderful." It also was a nightmare: 200 people lost their jobs.

In Washington, D.C, in the big unions, they are working, late into the night, on alternatives to the strike. I he strike is dead. It cannot stop management, it cannot close the plant, even for 24 hours. Now, instead of strikes, a few unions are trying "corporate campaigns." Instead of pickets, they may try lawsuits, proxy fights, or other approaches. The union, in other words, fights the strike like a shareholder. This is post-strike America: the rank and file stay home and send out their lawyers.

The D.C. lawyers, who represent the internationals, are ahead of the rest of us, who represent locals. When I come back from D.C, I feel like such a rube. What am I doing out here, drinking around with locals, instead of doing "corporate campaigns"? As we start to land, and I look out of the plane, it seems like Bedrock. Somewhere down there, I know, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble are still holding picket signs.

We live in a new age, I guess. Labor needs a new age approach, for the new kind of American boss, for men like Lorenzo, Icahn, and Trump, for men who, unlike the old robber barons, have no earthly estate, who appear in amber on computer screens for just a few seconds, and then are gone. It is hard for the old labor movement even to know where to put the pickets. I once tried to get some clients, rank-and-file union members, to think about a "corporate campaign." I told them that if we bought stock, we could file lawsuits, etc. They looked puzzled. "OK, we'll buy stock," they said. A few days later one of the men called and said, "My stock went up."

"So?" I said.

"I want to sell."

"Don't you get it? This is a corporate campaign."

In Peter Ueberroth's failed attempt to purchase Eastern Airlines and settle its strike, the pilots and machinists were offered the chance to acquire more stock in return for wage concessions—a deal that has been a trend in the airlines industry. Long ago, at other airlines, the pilots and machinists began to acquire more stock, and as a result, these two unions are among the dwindling few that have kept their bargaining clout. In theory, the machinists should be no more powerful than, say, the mineworkers; but their stock ownership sets them apart. As a friend of mine said, "When the airlines wanted concessions, the machinists said, 'Fine, give us more stock.' When you own as much stock as the machinists or pilots do, it gives you a lot more options. Then the other side has to listen." The rest of the labor movement blew it. It passed up the chance to own stock. It was an incredible blunder.

I recently tried to explain this in Chinese. It was a few weeks ago, when I spoke to a visiting delegation of Chinese officials. Believe it or not, they wanted to talk to a labor lawyer. The Chinese were touring the United States and going to only three places: to New York, to see Wall Street; to Los Angeles, to see Disneyland; and to Chicago, to see . . . well, a bunch of rusted steel mills. They were shocked that our steel industry had collapsed. They could not believe our union members bad permitted it. One of them asked, through an interpreter, "Why are American workers so powerless?" I thought, "You guys are the Marxists, you tell me." Another asked, "Why don't American workers own more stock?"

This was a very good question. I really do not know why American workers don't own more stock. The easy answer is, they were stupid, and it may be the real answer, too. There is something about organized labor, even now, that is peasanty, squinty-eyed, greedy, stuffing cash in mattresses because we don't trust the banks. I represent steelworkers who used to make $40,000 a year, and every week they cashed the checks in bars. It was inconceivable that they would ever take stock, or any funny-money. Co-ownership, co-determination, co-anything, that was all right for Europe, for labor in Germany or Scandinavia. But here it was better, more "American," to be an outsider. Better to be outside the stockholders' meeting, with a picket sign, with a cigarette dangling from your lips, like Bogart, like James Dean: better that than to go inside and get conned. Cet the money up front. The attitude in labor was: collective bargaining is for adults, stockholders' meetings are for kids.

Once, in the 1940s, organized labor almost had a chance to buy up the country. John L. Lewis, the great Mineworker leader, was the Donald Trump of his day, and when Lewis set up the UMW pension fund, he had the money at last to be a player. The coal industry had no say in running the fund, and Lewis had total control of it. He began using the fund to buy up stock, buy up companies, even buy up a bank, the National Bank of Washington.

If Lewis had continued, and if the rest of labor could have followed, then the AFL-CIO today might own much of the country. There would be no need for Danley strikes. But when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, their first objective was to stop Lewis. The Taft-Hartley Act prohibited the UMW or any other union from controlling a pension. It is all right under the law for the employer to have exclusive control: it was only union control that was made, literally, a federal crime.

The right said that the UMW fund was a "war chest" or "slush fund" for Lewis and that they were only protecting the workers' money. In fact, they were protecting American business from a new threat, the threat of "union capitalism," a labor-dominated economy, with labor leaders like Lewis making the deals. Today, employee benefit funds, or ERISA funds, have enormous assets, the savings of the nation, but they don't empower labor. Without Taft-Hartley. the term "pension-fund socialism," coined mockingly by Peter Drucker, would not be a business-school joke. Lane Kirkland would be king of the junk bonds. The New Deal would have lasted a thousand years. And the AFL-CIO would be like Japan.

Strangely, after Lewis, after Taft-Hartley, tbe rest of labor did not even seek joint control of the new pension funds, which the act did permit. In steel, for example, like many other industries, the employer is in total, unilateral control of every pension fund, those giant, oozing ERISA honey pots of worker money. Even joint control could have made labor a more active investor, a little bit more of a player. I asked a Steelworkers staffer what happened, why didn't he seek joint control? He stammered, "Uh, well, that wasn't an issue for us . . . we, uh . . . there were other things we were interested in .. ."

Yeah: getting the money up front.

It was the longest-running mistake in the history of labor, the unwitting, almost Gandhi-like renunciation of power. It was so stupid, and it was just one of a million blunders along the way. Now the renunciation is complete. Labor is as helpless as an emaciated Hindu.

I could not say all of this, of course, to the Chinese. While I talked, however, they listened politely, showing no sign of emotion. To me, they were as inscrutable as management lawyers.

When I was done, each member of the delegation, almost bowing, made a formal response:

"We found your explanation most enlightening."

"We were, indeed, most enlightened."

"We believe you should come to China and give lectures on this subject." I might as well.

Without the strike, and without stock, what hope is there for labor? We can always bope for the Great Depression. I think many people in labor believe, "Hey. that's when our ship'll really come in." Great. Just what labor needs. A depression. That would kill off whatever was left of us.

Besides, labor disgraced itself in the Great Depression. At least, the old AFL did, and now even the CIO unions act like the old AFL. Incredibly, in the '30s the old AFL actually opposed unemployment insurance. But then, labor has always had a funny relationship with the unemployed. Once people become unemployed, even if they were always good union members, they are out of the labor movement. They become lepers, untouchables; they become, at least potentially, scabs.

It is easy to see this now, in the '80s, in the way labor has kept its distance from the plant-closing movement. It is a movement that started outside institutional labor: unemployed workers, community groups, church groups. My friend Ann, who is a radical, said to me recently; "The plant-closing thing is so great. It's exciting, it's grass roots. So why doesn't labor endorse it?" I thought: "Why don't they endorse it? Why don't doctors go lo the funerals of their patients?"

Yet I often think the paradigm strike of the '80s is not a strike at all: it is a plant closing. It has all the theater, the anger that used to go into a strike, and it is really the only time when it is safe to throw a brick. People throw bricks, fight cops, disrupt Sunday services in churches and spill blood all over the floor. Nobody can sue or bust the union or do anything to them now: they are beyond the reach of labor law.

The wildest, most dangerous moment of a plant closing is when people realize not only that they will lose their jobs, but that they are about to leave the union, forever. It is their last five minutes in organized labor. Then they will be in the rest of America, the other 83 percent. This is their one last chance to be mad.

Just this year, a local I loved, one of the best in the country, disappeared—Local 72 of the Auto Workers, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with 5,000 members. The Chrysler plant closed, and so did the local: the earth just swallowed it up. Just before that happened, the union called a rally. The workers stood outside the plant, and not knowing what else to do, they decided to scream. It was a scream so loud it could be heard in the Loop, 60 miles away. So a story said in the Chicago Sun- Times. It was a scream that one day people will commemorate with a plaque, and people will walk past it and remember. And they will think: this was the last scream they screamed before they left organized labor.

Ed Sadlowski, my friend, a sub-district director of the Steelworkers, a hero of the Danley strike, puts it this way: "How will labor come back? In a strike. That's not romanticism, that's a fact. It'll start with one plant. One plant. And they strike. And there'll be guys across the street, at a second plant, and they see it, and they think, 'Hmm, maybe we can do that.' And they do it, and they win. Then somebody in Idaho does it, the same thing, independently. And then all of a sudden, you're seeing some John L. Lewis again, a leader, but he's just thrown up, he's just riding the thing . . ."

He kept saying, "That's not romanticism . . ."

But it sounds Tolstoyan: nobody planning it, no Napoleon, not even a John L. Lewis. Maybe it happened this way in the '30s, but if it happens again . . . well, I must say, a million things will have to go right.

I have dwelt on strikes as if there were nothing more to labor, as if it were all war and no peace. When I first became a labor lawyer, it is true, I was in it for the strikes, for the "war." I liked the masculine, even macho side of it. I smoked cigars, I liked all the little pieces of stage business.

But I had to give up cigars because of my sinuses. And to a degree I would never have believed, the labor movement has had to give up strikes.

As I get older, I seem to be with labor now more for the feminine, maternal side of it. I am in it for St. Joseph's Day. I am in it for the side of labor that brings us all together and that wipes away every tear.

I was back at St. Joseph's Day a year or two ago. There had been layoffs at Joe Romano's local, and more were supposed to be coming tbat week. I sat with one of the men who expected to be laid off any day. As we ate together, he held his little girl, about four years old; she was very quiet, very sad.

I said, "What'll you do?"

His wife shot him a look.

He said, "She doesn't like me to talk about it."

"Maybe it won't happen," she said, and I could see she was afraid.

"Oh," he said, "we'll get by. The union'll help us."

I said, almost sarcastically: "How? Financially?"

"Yes. Oh, they expect you to try, but if you can't make a mortgage payment, the local will do it for you."

I just stared at him. He must be kidding. This local, right now, was down to 150 working members.

Then I thought about Joe Romano, and the faith people had in him; and the faith they had in each other.

They had starved together for nine months. Who knows? Maybe this local did make mortgage payments.

As I left, I thanked Joe, as I usually do, and we shook hands.

"Great food," I said.

And he said, "I'm honored you were our guest."

Later I kept repeating these words to myself, as if they were full of mystery, and had a deeper meaning, on the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

Thomas Geoghugan, a Chicago lawyer, is working on a book about labor to be published next spring by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

By Thomas Geoghegan