United We Stand 

Assessing an uncertain future for organized labor in Missoula

Page 3 of 4

Bostrom had assumed the persona of Irish packaging tycoon Sir Michael Smurfit in a tongue and cheek salute to International Workers Day. Sir Smurfit was the former chairman of Smurfit Stone's parent company, Smurfit Kappa. The elaborate parody spawned from the packaging tycoon's reported purchase of a $68 million yacht, complete with a gym, movie theater and beauty salon. The purchase came within months of Smurfit Stone's bankruptcy.

"Thank you, Missoula. Thanks for the boat," Bostrom continued.

As part of the skit, a bunch of faux workers then ejected Sir Smurfit from the yacht with the help of someone playing the role of the late legendary labor leader Mother Jones.

After the guerilla theatrics, about 45 people carrying umbrellas and signs—"Socialist and proud" read one, "People not profit" read another—wound down Front Street and up Higgins on the way to Kiwanis Park.

click to enlarge Butte’s Miners Union Local Number One was the first group of underground workers to organize a union in the nation. “They were militant because they were working for pennies a day and no benefits, period, over and out,” says Pat Williams, a Butte native and former nine-term U.S. congressman. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PAT AND CAROL WILLIAMS
  • Photo courtesy of Pat and Carol Williams
  • Butte’s Miners Union Local Number One was the first group of underground workers to organize a union in the nation. “They were militant because they were working for pennies a day and no benefits, period, over and out,” says Pat Williams, a Butte native and former nine-term U.S. congressman.

The mood turned serious at the park, as University of Montana professor Michel Valentin talked about the origins of the international workers holiday in the U.S.: On May 1, 1886, 80,000 people took to the streets of Chicago demonstrating their resolve to stick to an eight-hour workday. The strike lasted for days—340,000 workers nationwide walked out of 12,000 factories. As with most of organized labor's endeavors, implementing the eight-hour workday didn't happen overnight. But on that spring day more that 100 years ago, a tradition was born.

"We have to reclaim tough, in-your-face politics," Valentin said. "Let's stop behaving like slaves."

That's the same message IWW founders brought to Montana more than 100 years ago. Since the industrial union's 1905 inception, the IWW has offered a far more radical critique of capitalism than the mainstream labor movement ever did. IWW members advocate using direct action—everything from strikes to sabotage—to better workplace conditions. The group also aims to seize the means of production from those in power and return it to the working people.

From the beginning, the Wobblies, as they were known, posed a threat to business as usual in Montana. In the summer of 1917, IWW leader Frank Little showed up in Butte spreading an anti-war and anti-capitalism message, giving more than a few leaders cause for concern.

"An injury to one is an injury to all!" Little wrote in a July 1917 publication called Solidarity, which Montana State University professor Jerry W. Calvert dug up and published in his book, The Gibraltar: Socialism and Labor in Butte, Montana.

"So all you together, you diggers and muckers," Little continued, "boost for the organization that is going to get you the things that will really make life worth living. Force the bosses off your backs, put them to work down a hole with the producers; hand them their muck sticks and make them earn a living for a change."

click to enlarge Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams recalls watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women’s Protective Union. The lessons Williams learned during childhood stuck with him throughout his career. “They are America’s most important institution,” he says of unions. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Former U.S. Congressman Pat Williams recalls watching his father, a restaurant owner in Butte, negotiate with the Women’s Protective Union. The lessons Williams learned during childhood stuck with him throughout his career. “They are America’s most important institution,” he says of unions.

According to Calvert, less than two weeks after that publication, six men took Little from his Butte boarding house, tied him to a vehicle, dragged him behind it, beat him and hung him from a train trestle.

Little's message lives on today in about three-dozen Wobblies from the Missoula, Butte and Hamilton areas. Bostrom, a Big Sky High School Spanish teacher and one of the group's most outspoken members, proudly shares his views with anyone who will listen: Poverty breeds crime, he says. If certain segments of society scrape for scraps while another lives the high life, there will be anger and, in turn, violence. It's a cycle, Bostrom explains. If working people don't come together in solidarity, our global society will continue to be fractured by the symptoms of inequality.

"If there is no justice, there ain't no peace," he says.

From the beginning, the Wobblies have been called purveyors of radical rhetoric. But Bostrom says that's bunk.

"I don't think it's rhetoric," he says. "I think it's either honest and it's true and it's factual, or it's not. Capitalism and its marketing system, its propaganda machine, can give us really potent emotional oversimplifications."

Bostrom believes schools provide a prime example of why unions have a hard time getting their message across. He points to textbooks that imply free markets have solved workers' problems, while high schools and colleges teach organized labor as if it's a historical footnote rather than a modern-day tool.

"We live in an extremely anti-union country. There are reasons for it," he says. "I'm a teacher. I can tell you that inside schools, we don't teach it. In fact we're loath to teach it, which is interesting because we're in a union."

Plus, as evidenced by Michael Smurfit and his 213-foot yacht, the issue of inequality is just as real as it ever was, he says. In turn, Little's dream of creating the "One Big Union" comprised of workers across the globe is still painfully relevant.

"If people are okay with this system of winners and losers," Bostrom says, "then lets keep going down this road of capitalism."

Montana Chamber of Commerce President Webb Brown sees things a little differently than Bostrom. For one, "industry" is not some faceless force bent on bleeding its workers dry. He says it's largely the face of people just like you and I.

"I think most folks want to do what's right for employees," he says.

Really, business in the state is comprised of mostly mom-and-pop shops, Brown says. And operations like that often have a tough time stomaching the expense of union demands.

"It becomes where the hands of management are actually tied," Brown says. "Companies can't continue to compete because the loads of demands are too high, everything from the wage levels to the benefits."

Organized labor's critics say that when unions gain too much power, an excessive and inflexible wage burden is passed on to consumers. According to James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics for the Heritage Foundation, profits at unionized companies run between 10 and 15 percent less than those of comparable non-union firms.

  • Email
  • Print

More by Jessica Mayrer

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

© 2014 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation