Propaganda against workers and unions is widespread, and the entire climate is anti-labor: Michael D. Yates

The following is the second of four parts of Michael D. Yates’s interview with Farooque Chowdhury:

Farooque Chowdhury: What were the hurdles you encountered while organizing labor, and how did you overcome those? What work did you do with labor unions and negotiating contracts and in educating workers?

Michael D. Yates:

Part One: Organizing on Campus and Beyond

First, my activities with workers included organizing, speaking to those who were organizing, supporting labor actions, working for a labor union, educating workers, and writing for and with the working class. I will take up each of these in turn, with the first three covered in the first part of my answer, and the last three dealt with in the second. Second, these various activities always helped to inform my teaching. That is, I found it important for an academic to participate fully in the material world. Once at a conference, we spoke to a professor who taught at an elite college in which there were almost no Black students. He taught courses on race, and we asked if this was a problem in such a lily-white school. That is, how did he learn about the lives of Black people? He said that he read a lot. We didn’t press the issue, but we thought that this was an inadequate approach for an academic.

The Maintenance and Custodial Workers at the College

Toward the end of my response to the first question, I wrote that the custodians Mike and Jane were unhappy about their working conditions, and that we thought a union would be a way to improve them. This was in 1970 or 1971. I began to look for a union that might want to organize and represent the maintenance and custodial workers at the college, the men and women who took care of the grounds and the many buildings on the campus. I didn’t have much luck. Most unions do not care to organize relatively small numbers of employees; there were fewer than fifty here. The local Teamsters and Steelworkers were not interested. An independent union was a possibility, but there was no way that these relatively few low-wage workers could finance an organizing drive. Finally, I called the union that represented similar workers at the central campus in Pittsburgh, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Today, SEIU is one of the largest unions in the United States, with nearly two million members. It is a “catchall” union, in that it represents a wide array of workers, from janitors to healthcare workers, including nurses and doctors. At the time the Pittsburgh workers unionized, it was called the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU), and it represented workers just like Mike and Jane.

The university was notoriously anti-union. Its law firm, Reed Shaw, had, in fact, represented the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and his vicious lieutenant Henry Clay Frick. However, the building and groundskeepers had successfully organized many years before. While the local and the union had, at best, a mediocre reputation, it at least knew its employer, which was the same as Mike and Jane’s. I called the union and, after some further correspondence, they expressed interest.

I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but the first thing I did was look for a place off campus to hold a meeting, at which some of the Pittsburgh local union officials would be present. I rented a room at a local motel, typed, and made copies of an invitation to the workers, and had Mike and Jane make sure these were properly distributed. When I made these copies — and later, when I made copies for other meetings of unions — I used a campus copying machine. As I was using a machine for this first meeting, a college administrator confronted me at the copying machine. Faculty used the machines on campus freely, one of our few perquisites. This man grabbed one of my copies and said I couldn’t use the machine. This petty intrusion into my space incensed me so greatly that I did something out of character. I confronted him and said that if he ever did that again I would knock him down (I think I used more explosive language than this). He retreated, and I made my copies.

It didn’t surprise me that the workers’ bosses soon knew about the upcoming meeting. There are always those who want to curry favor with their supervisors and do so by ratting out their fellow workers. The custodians had a foreman, and the maintenance workers had one as well. Both immediately began a campaign of harassment.

The day of the meeting, a Sunday, we were nervous. Who knew how many would show up? We got there early and met the union people from Pittsburgh, who mercifully weren’t late. We had an excellent turnout, with many questions. We decided then to distribute authorization cards. These indicate that the workers want the union to represent them in collective bargaining. Under the applicable labor law, if 30 percent of the proposed bargaining unit (in this case, all the maintenance and custodial workers at the Johnstown campus of the University of Pittsburgh) sign such cards, the state labor agency must hold an election. If 50 percent plus one of those who vote in the election vote for the union, then the employer must bargain in good faith with the union over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. But before an election, the employer has the legal right to challenge the composition of the bargaining unit. For example, if the union included supervisors in the unit, the employer would argue that these were key parts of management and cannot be in the bargaining unit.

We made sure that every worker got an authorization card. We put them in an envelope that had a return envelope inside with a stamp on it. I think we had them mail the envelopes to me. We were amazed to see that we hit the 30 percent threshold in a few days, and the cards kept coming in. We petitioned for an election. The university did not demand a hearing to challenge the bargaining unit. This was for two reasons. First, it might have argued that the appropriate unit would consist of all the maintenance and custodial workers at all the University’s campuses (there were five campuses then). However, since these workers at the Pittsburgh campus were already unionized, this argument would likely fail. But second and probably more important, the university no doubt thought that these workers could be bullied and threatened enough by management to be too afraid to vote for a union. And true to form, the college began letting the workers know that a union would be bad for them. They would have to pay dues; there would be a more antagonistic and troubling atmosphere in the workplace; the union was an outsider and had no real interest in them; and so forth. Some workers were opposed to the union, and two brothers were promised better jobs if they discouraged their coworkers from voting for a union. Threats were issued by the immediate foremen, especially to the women custodians. One evening, I received a phone call from a woman who was a dormitory custodian. She said that she was permitted to get to work a few minutes past her shift start time because she had to take her child to school. She was now told that if the union won, this no longer would be the case, and if she were late, she would be fired. She began to cry. I did my best to comfort her. I let her know that there would be a secret ballot, and no one would know how she voted — and if the union did win, I assured her that the boss would not be able to take such a drastic action.

State agents came to campus on the election date to oversee the election. We made sure everyone would be there to vote. Because this was a small bargaining unit, the agents counted the votes as soon as the poll closed. When they finished and announced the vote, we were elated. We won a landslide victory, the first defeat suffered by the university in a long time. The union secured a contract without a strike and now the workers were no longer under the unilateral control of their bosses. There were ups and downs over the years I was there. At one point, I participated in two negotiations. One surprising thing that happened is that the two brothers, both custodians, who had been against the union, became strong supporters of the union. Once the union won, their supervisor ignored his promise to them. One of the brothers became the shop steward–the first-line union officer, the person who held meetings, filed grievances, etc.–and served for many years.

The Teachers at the College

As I began to teach and as I continued my studies, I began to see that the college was a workplace. It is true that as professors, we were treated by the general public and the other workers on campus with respect. However, we had bosses too, just as did the maintenance and custodial workers, the secretaries, the cafeteria employees, and the lower-level staff and administrators. Our working conditions and wages were nothing to brag about. For example, my starting salary was $7,200 per year. My contract was for one year, which meant that I had to have it renewed each year. I had such a contract for my first four years, and at a rank of Instructor, which the central campus in Pittsburgh did not even recognize. I was an at-will employee, meaning that I could be fired at the end of a year for just about any reason that did not violate a specific law, such as civil rights legislation. I could be fired for my political views or actions. Only later, if I was granted tenure (after six years of teaching), would I have at least some protections. My course load was onerous. That first year, I taught five courses each week, and I had four separate preparations. To get the job, I agreed to teach statistics, which I was not qualified to do, meaning that I had to spend an inordinate number of hours learning the ins and outs of the subject well enough to get the material across to students who all too often could not do the simplest mathematical operations. Each semester, I had at least 200 students, with no assistants to help me, as would normally be the case at the Pittsburgh campus. One semester, I had 480 students, with 240 in one auditorium class. That semester, I marked more than 2,000 papers.

I immediately began to protest our working conditions. At one point, we did a survey of faculty pay. I discovered that I was not the worst-off teacher. Women were woefully underpaid. One woman who had been teaching for some twenty-five years was earning less than I! At the other end of the wage and working conditions spectrum, some professors had cut deals with the corrupt college president. When this man learned that the university would build a new campus about six miles from the city of Johnstown, in a deeply wooded and pretty area, he began to buy surrounding property, knowing that he would soon enough get rich selling it to homebuyers who wanted to live close to a college.

About three years into my teaching tenure, I became head of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a liberal watchdog group that advocated for teachers and sometimes censured colleges and universities that violated certain ethical standards. A friend of mine, Bruce Williams, who taught anthropology, and I decided to use my title as head of the AAUP chapter to have an exploratory meeting to see if there was interest in a labor union for the teachers. We contacted the state affiliate of one of the two major teachers’ unions (these were the National Education Association [NEA] and the American Federation of Teachers [AFT]). The NEA affiliate agreed to send two organizers to the meeting, which we would hold in a college classroom. We sent out invitations to each teacher, simply putting these in faculty mailboxes. At the time, there were about one hundred teachers at the college. On the day of the meeting, we waited nervously for the organizers to arrive. The room soon filled.

One of the teachers who came was an older man who had once been the mayor of Johnstown and then barely lost an election for the national House of Representatives. He was an influential person on campus, a man who had secured jobs for some teachers and staff. My friend and I had already antagonized him when we began to openly criticize the administration; he viewed us as a threat to his power. He even challenged me to a physical fight one afternoon in the faculty dining room. He sat in the back of the room at the meeting and began to heckle us, putting on a rather pathetic show. Most of the teachers saw through this, knowing that he was simply a shill for the administration.

The meeting went well. The teachers asked questions, and there seemed to be support for a union. So, Bruce and I decided to send authorization cards to each faculty member’s home address, with an addressed envelope inside in which to place the card. Unlike the maintenance and custodial workers, the teachers were slow to return the cards, and it took a few weeks before we had the requisite number of cards to call for an election. When we had them, the union filed a petition for a union representation election. This time, the university challenged the composition of the proposed bargaining unit, claiming that we were simply a part of a larger unit consisting of all University of Pittsburgh teachers, in Pittsburgh and on the regional campuses. The university said that we all had a similar, and not a separate, “community of interest.” That is, my interests as a lowly instructor in Johnstown were the same as a top professor at the Pittsburgh campus. In fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. However, proving this was a different matter. In the meantime, however, Bruce and I visited all the teachers in their offices to listen to their grievances and see if they were likely union supporters. We built a small core of strong union supporters to help with the organizing. Many were noncommittal and some were hostile, but a surprising number were for a union. There were quite a few teachers who were treated as second-class citizens on our campus, and we were all treated as such by the central university. What we were was a cash cow, sending money to the university much in excess of what we got in return. Even the new campus had been largely financed by local fund drives. Our teaching loads were far greater than those of faculty in Pittsburgh; we got almost no financing for research or travel; sabbatical leaves were rare; and there were teachers who would never be promoted no matter how long they taught. If we taught summer classes, our pay was low, almost beyond belief—a few hundred dollars per course.

Once the college learned what we were up to, administrators began to undermine our efforts. Needless to say, the local administrators were subservient to their overlords in Pittsburgh, and it was a black mark against them that they were in charge when this union challenge took place. The college president, Jack Freeman, a man of little distinction other than that he was in the military, with the University Chancellor, Wesley Posvar (rumor had it that he had been a CIA agent), called me into his office. I was to come immediately. I told his secretary that I was busy, and I could see him the next week. When I finally entered his office, he asked me what we wanted. I told him that the fact that he didn’t know was one reason why we needed a union.

Bruce and I met with the union organizers to plan strategy for the hearing. We would have to show that the teachers at our college had a separate community of interest from those in Pittsburgh. However, we did not have access to critical information that the chief university officers possessed: detailed budgets, memoranda, correspondence, meeting agendas, and notes. We had little useful information. The union representatives were not attorneys, and, as it turned out, we badly needed one.

The hearing was run by a person from the state of Pennsylvania’s Labor Relations Board for Public Employees. Since we were state public employees, we were covered by state and not national labor law. Representing the university was a small army of administrators and lawyers. The lead attorney was one Scott Zimmerman, a tall, blonde, young man from one of the city’s top law firms, one once used by notorious robber baron Carnegie and his henchman Frick, masters of the wage serfs at the Carnegie Steel Company. Zimmerman seemed right out of central casting for a Nazi propaganda film. We decided that Bruce would be our main witness, while I would sit with the union reps, feeding them information and questions.

We soon saw that we were overmatched. The university had all the data; we had very little. We did the best we could, but it was not enough. During a break in the proceedings, I overheard an administrator, Robert Nossen, the man in charge of all the regional campuses, say to another administrator, “who do these two [Bruce and I] think they are?” We did know what they thought of us. We were like the undeserving poor the national government dismissed as lazy and as social parasites. We had some nerve to challenge the great University. We were lucky to have jobs at all. We were simply academic drones.

It wasn’t long before the Labor Board made its ruling. We did not have a separate community of interest, meaning that we could only get a union if a majority if all of the university teachers voted for one. Bruce and I were confident that had our faculty been permitted to vote, the union might have won.

Within a couple years, union fever began to strike the teachers in Pittsburgh. I enthusiastically got the fever again and began to help in whatever way I could. We held meetings with the teachers from Pittsburgh who came to our campus. They listened to our litany of grievances and explained their own positions, as well as giving our faculty much useful information on the law, strategy, and tactics. Unfortunately, three unions joined the fray, and the loyalties of unions supporters were split. These unions were the NEA, the AFT (American Federation of Teachers), and the AAUP (the latter had recently begun to operate as a labor union). The university helped set up and fund, very likely illegally, a rabidly antiunion group of professors, and this group began to barrage us with antiunion propaganda.

Once one of the unions received a requisite number of authorization cards (more than the minimum, which was 30 percent, because unions always lose representation elections when they do not get at least half of the proposed bargaining unit to sign the cards), it petitioned for an election. Once again, the university challenged the composition of the bargaining unit. The union, the AFT, wanted graduate assistants, those graduate students who taught classes and were paid to do so, to be included in the union. In this, the AFT was ahead of the times. Today, such graduate student employees have formed unions in many parts of the country, and some have conducted strikes to get good collective bargaining contracts. The university said these worker-students were not employees. The university also wanted medical faculty in the unit, despite the fact that the medical school had become a large business entity, with separate interests and an independent administration from the rest of the teachers. There were other issues as well, which I no longer remember, but suffice it to say that hearings over the bargaining union dragged on for many weeks, giving the university more time to sow dissension among the teachers. We were bombarded with letters filled with corporate propaganda. I always laughed when I got a letter from the Chancellor or the Provost, addressed “Dear colleague.” These top administrators were hardly my colleagues. However, some faculty were swayed by the corporate campaign against the union. When, finally, the bargaining unit was decided by the state labor board, with both graduate students and medical faculty excluded from the unit, voting days were set. Mail ballots were sent out in this case because the faculty was so widely dispersed. The vote showed that the three unions together got a majority of votes. However, no single unit received a majority, so a runoff election had to be held between the two top vote-getters on the ballot. Unfortunately, one of the entities on the ballot was “No Union,” and this received the second highest vote total. First was the AFT (the union I supported and campaigned for), the most militant of the three unions on the ballot. The university successfully painted us as too radical and in the run-off, the “No Union” vote got a majority.

Before I retired from full-time teaching in 2001, there were two more faculty union elections with the same result. “No Union” prevailed. Remarkably, in 2021, faculty at the University of Pittsburgh finally voted in favor of union. The union that led the organizing drive was the United Steel Workers, once the most powerful unions in the “Steel City.” The negotiations for a first contract have proven difficult, and as of this writing, there has been no agreement reached.

Speaking to and Supporting Workers

It is important for every radical to look first to what is closest. In the case of the job a person has, if the workers are not organized, then it is incumbent on a radical to try to change that. Challenge authority whenever possible, with a group of like-minded people. Workers always have some power, and all they might need is a catalyst to make them more aware of their circumstances and the need to do something about them.

Yet, every workplace is embedded in larger social structures, and to understand your own work circumstances, it is necessary to grasp these outside forces. First, how does your workplace connect to the larger society in which it is embedded, and second, how does the larger society itself function? During my years as a professor, I learned a great deal about the town that was close to the college, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, as well as the town’s connection to the school. While the people of Johnstown contributed money and attended the college, the more elite members of the town had great influence on the school. That was true in Pittsburgh as well, as a list of the names of the Board of Trustees quickly told me. They represented a cross-section of powerful Pittsburghers, with business leaders overrepresented. This is true of almost all colleges and universities.

Johnstown had been a major center of the steel industry for many decades, with the main mill that of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. I learned all I could about the history of this company, as well as that of the mining companies that dominated many small villages not far from Johnstown. I read about the labor history of the steel and coal industries, and I began to make connections with local labor unions. There were very few Black workers in the mills, and these were concentrated in the most dangerous parts of the plants, namely, making coke and laboring in the foundry. I once had students interview older steelworkers and coal miners using tape recorders. We had interviews with Black steelworkers, who told the students about their journey from the US South to the North, hoping to escape the former slave states and their murderous racism, and to find better conditions and jobs in the North. In 1922, in reaction to an influx of Black men coming north to work in the mills (some of whom had been recruited as strikebreakers during the 1919 steel strike, without knowing that they were being used to help destroy a union), the mayor of Johnstown ordered every Black person to leave the city and the state. Many, in fear, did so. I began to tell my students and colleagues about these things.

I gave talks to local audiences, sometimes in response to requests from workers wanting to know how to form a labor union. I spoke to public school teachers, community college professors, librarians, truck drivers, and others. Whenever there was a strike, I offered whatever support I could. I supported truck drivers at a large local company and mine workers during strikes. When Tony Boyle, the president of the United Mine Workers had a rival for his office, Joseph Yablonski, murdered, there was an intervention by the federal government that forced a new, monitored election for union president. I had student volunteers become election monitors, sometimes in remote locations. I served as a monitor as well. I organized a week-long symposium on the local and national economy. We invited speakers from Johnstown, Pittsburgh, and other cities in the United States. There were radicals, liberals, and conservatives who came to campus, including the editors at the time of Monthly Review magazine, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff. These two great radicals were delighted to meet local unionists from both Johnstown and Pittsburgh.

Two events stand out. During the 1960s and ’70s, a union movement of singular importance in U.S. history unfolded in the agricultural fields of California, the state in which much of the nation’s vegetables are grown. Under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, farm workers who labored in misery to harvest our crops, began to organize in a great and inspiring wave. The workers were overwhelmingly Chicanos (people born in the United States but with parents or grandparents born in Mexico) and Mexicans who came north, following the crops from southern to northern California and on to Oregon and Washington states. Farm workers in Texas, Arizona, and Florida also began to organize. The union, the United Farm Workers (UFW), put into effect, with volunteers around the nation, an effective boycott of grapes and lettuce. The farm workers also marched and demonstrated, struck, and picketed. I took an immediate interest in the UFW and Chavez. I invited a UFW supporter, who was working in one of the boycott offices the union established, to visit one of my classes. She came and spoke to the students, and afterward we took up a collection for the union. Not long after, I was invited to the state convention of a large public employee union (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME) to talk about the UFW. I did this, and we again raised money for the union. As I will discuss in the next section of my responses to this question, I eventually worked for the union at its headquarters in California and met Chavez in person.

The other event was more personal for me. I was invited to speak to the workers at a glass factory in Meadville, Pennsylvania, ninety miles north of Pittsburgh. I had many relatives, including my father, who, as we have seen, had worked in the glass factory in my hometown of Ford City. When the company began to develop a strategy of locating plants in rural areas and in the South of the United States, where unions were much weaker, employment at the unionized Ford City plant began to decline, and eventually closed. Some workers moved and began to work in the Meadville plant, among them high school (secondary school) classmates. The Glassworkers Union was trying to unionize the plant. I drove to Meadville and agreed to meet with the workers at each of the three shift changes (there were three eight-hour shifts). After or before their shifts began, workers came to the hall the union had rented for meetings. Each time, I said something about myself, mainly where I grew up and how important the union had been to my father and all the people in Ford City, including me. I could not have gone to college had there not been a union. I might not have had health care either. Then I spoke about the advantages to workers of a union, in terms not just of wages and benefits, but also in terms of the power unions give the workers. No longer could they be treated as mere costs of production. No longer could they be fired for almost any reason. I was moved by the words of the workers, especially two of my classmates, Dan and Allen. The meetings went well, but sadly, the union effort was defeated. Ironically, it was the younger workers, those who would have gained the most over their work lives from a union, who most voted “No Union.” They had not been offended by being called “associates” instead of workers, and they were happy to attend the corporate outings where they learned the evils of unions and the joys of working for the Pittsburgh Plate Glass company.

Part Two: The United Farm Workers

I had a sabbatical leave scheduled for the Winter semester of 1977. My interest in the UFW led me to apply to the union to work in one of its boycott offices during my sabbatical. I would help one of these offices to build consumer boycotts of table grapes and lettuce. The union responded and assigned me to the office in Detroit, Michigan. I made plans to go to the “Motor City” when I got a letter from the union’s personnel director. He said that when union president Chavez saw that I had a PhD in economics, the president said that I should come directly to union headquarters in Keene, California. Later, the personnel guy told me that Cesar had said, “Hey, if the growers can get professors to work for them, so can we.”

Right after New Year’s Day, I got in my Volkswagen Rabbit and began the 2,500-mile drive from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to Keene, California. I soon developed a severe toothache and began to swallow a dozen or so aspirins each day of the trip. I arrived at union headquarters at night. It was located in hills, a few miles north of Tehachapi, the nearest real town. Keene itself was home to a couple hundred ranchers and, of course, those living at union headquarters, which was called La Paz (Peace). La Paz was on a dirt road off the highway, with a small café as the only landmark. I was met at the gate by two of Cesar’s guards, who were a bit suspicious — with good reason, because Chavez’s life had often been threatened. They dialed the phone extension of the personnel manager, who came to the gate, greeted me warmly, and escorted me to my room. In what follows, I will outline the work I did for the farm workers. Interested readers can look at a more in-depth account, linked below, titled “Cesar” and published in October 2009, which includes a rather damning indictment of Cesar Chavez. (Note that except for public figures, I changed the names of the characters in the story.)

As is true for farm laborers around the world, farm workers in the United States are among the poorest and most oppressed workers. Even today, in 2023, the life expectancy of these toilers in California’s “factories in the fields” is barely fifty years, the same as it was sixty years ago. Agriculture is big business in California, which is far and away the most important agricultural state in the United States. Today, there are 81,500 farms in California, with some covering thousands of acres, so large that there are street signs in the fields. California is a major producer of everything from tomatoes and lettuce to nuts, grapes, berries, mushrooms, marijuana, and cut flowers. It produces significant amounts of rice, dairy products, cotton, and wheat. On average, there are at least 400,000 farm workers in California, but at peak times, such as harvesting, there are about 900,000 people working the fields. Conditions are abysmal, with child labor commonplace, along with poor sanitation and safety conditions, inadequate water and rest periods, and horrendous housing conditions. Typically, except for a period during the Great Depression, when thousands of white workers displaced from their farms in the Midwest due to the notorious Dust Bowl made famous by John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, farm workers in California have been people of color, including immigrants from Japan and the Philippines, but today are mainly from Mexico.

Farm laborers have formed unions to protest and improve their conditions of work and life for more than one hundred years. The best-known of these efforts was waged throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s by the UFW, led by Chavez and many others. By the time I came to work for the union, it had already organized thousands of workers. In 1975, the UFW was able to pressure the state government, under the direction of liberal governor Jerry Brown, to enact the nation’s first comprehensive labor law aimed solely at the protection of the organizing rights of farm workers. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) allowed farm workers to petition for a union certification election, and, if the union won a majority of the votes, mandated that employers negotiate a collective bargaining agreement in good faith. It also, unlike similar the national legislation (which, in what amounted to a racist provision, excluded farm workers from coverage), allowed a union to demand monetary damages for an employer’s refusal to negotiate in good faith. In the decade prior to passage of the ALRA, many growers had signed weak collective bargaining agreements with the corrupt, gangster-ridden Teamsters Union. Now, the UFW could hold elections at Teamster-organized ranches. This it did, and in a relatively short time drove the Teamsters from the fields. Wages, hours, and conditions began to improve because of the UFW, which also set up its own medical clinics for farm workers and initiated pension plans. These were truly miraculous changes for this most downtrodden mass of workers. The union used imaginative tactics, with long marches, strikes, mass picketing, and nationwide boycotts to compel the growers to negotiate. Remarkably, by the early 1980s, lettuce harvesters, who worked in teams, usually consisting of family members, were earning what today would be the equivalent of about $60 an hour (Remember, however, that these were migrant laborers who did not work year-round). The workers could send money back to their families in Mexico or, if they lived full-time with their families in the United States, greatly improve their immediate standard of living. On union ranches, workers could no long be treated as peons, with no rights whatsoever, suffering continuous bodily damage, and regular employer and police violence.

I lived at La Paz in what had formerly been a sanitarium for people stricken with tuberculosis. The land and the buildings had been donated to the UFW by a supporter. While married couples lived in trailers or cottages, the rest of us lived in rooms. We divided ourselves into “kitchens,” where we cooked; collectively we cleaned and did the food shopping. On Saturdays, we devoted time to work in the community garden. We received a tiny stipend of about $30 per month, so we pooled money for necessities. Some of us, like myself, had our own money, so we could buy some meals in Tehachapi and help others do the same. I often lent my car to union volunteers. The union had mobilized thousands of supporters around the country and even in Europe. Chavez became an icon of the common people, on a par with Martin Luther King. Today, hundreds of streets, highways, libraries, schools, and other landmarks are named after him. Celebrities like Robert Kennedy and actor Jane Fonda visited La Paz and championed Chavez and the union, as did many labor leaders. It was a special organization and a special time. I was happy to be part of it. For a while, at least.

I couldn’t begin working immediately because Chavez was away. He often traveled, and when he did, work at La Paz slowed. He had to be involved in every aspect of union affairs, and nothing could be done without his approval. I came to see that this was an unwise way to manage a complex enterprise. Some authority must be delegated. I spent time meeting other volunteers and staff and learning the routines of my new daily life. I regularly wrote to my family and friends. I still have the letters I sent to my parents. My immediate superiors at La Paz were David, a negotiator, who complained that bargaining was always delayed due to Chavez’s micromanagement, and Gilbert Padilla, the union’s Secretary-Treasurer and one of its founders. Gilbert had been a farm worker, the son of farm workers, who grew up in great poverty. He was a good man, funny and helpful.

My jobs at the union were many and varied. I did what was asked of me. I finally had my interview with Chavez. It was short, and he impressed me right away; he had a way of making a person feel central to the union. Immediately, you wanted to make sacrifices for both him and the workers. The first thing I did was begin to research the growers, reading the magazines put out by the various trade groups of the growers. Who were the major growers; what was their relationship to the union; what technologies were being employed; who did the research vital to farming — for example, were universities involved (I discovered that the University of California at Davis was mainly at the service of the employers in terms of research)—and so on. I worked seven days a week, although Sunday was supposed to be a free day. I got my tooth repaired. I attended meetings and continued to meet people.

The first task I performed was to prepare a collective bargaining manual for those who were negotiating. I taught collective bargaining at my college, so this gave me a good deal of practical knowledge. It turned into a booklet, which I hoped would be useful. In the end, what goes into a contract depends upon the potential power of the workers and the skill of the leadership, which includes a commitment to rank-and-file democracy and participation. Research is also critical. I knew of cases in which the wages that were negotiated were lower than what the workers were already earning! This was a sure sign of incompetence.

I was assigned to do some traveling, which was welcome. My office at La Paz was extremely uncomfortable. The desk chair was so old and worn that it began to do damage to my back and legs. I got a directive to go to the town of Oxnard, a midsized city close to the Pacific Ocean. There was a UFW union hall there, and this is where I slept, on a couch. As I remember it, the poor people lived on one side of the railroad tracks, while the more well-off lived on the other side. I took a walk on our side of town late one night. The union staff persons told me it was dangerous to do so.

The farm workers at the Oxnard ranch of tomato grower Roger Donlon had won a union certification election and were in negotiation with Donlon. He was a hardcore libertarian, and every box of his tomatoes bore the inscription, “Unsubsidized Product of the Free Capitalist Economy of the United States.” He was fluent in Spanish and a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, and his tomato operation was one part of a family agribusiness (I learned this recently while reading his obituary—which I was pleased to see, given what a wretched man he was). He paid his workers a rate per piece, that is, a set amount of money for each container of tomatoes picked. The rate was based on the yield in each field; the higher the yield, the lower the piece rate. The workers complained that they couldn’t depend on a steady total wage. They might get a bad field, and the rate might not be high enough to generate an adequate income. My job was to work out a piece rate proposal so that, no matter the field worked in, the average earnings would be approximately equal.

The ALRA mandates that an employer must provide documents necessary for a union to prepare proposals within the framework of the law. This includes wage information. Donlon therefore had to give the union the wage information needed for the union’s piece rate proposal, which, in turn, meant that Donlon had to provide field production data. I ended up in a cold warehouse with boxes full of production records. They were unsorted, showing that Donlon was saying, “good luck.” I spent many hours over a couple days going through the boxes, making a chart with the number of the field and the yield for each one. I then developed a formula that would make the wages earned by the harvesters approximately equal. Later, my friend Liza Hersch, who had begun working for the union when she was 12 (her father was a plumber and long-time Communist) and, at age 21, was now the head of the UFW’s Oxnard office. I explained the proposal to the bargaining team. The team was comprised of rank-and-file farm workers, and the team leader was a young charismatic man who later invited us to a party at his home. I attended a bargaining session, in which Donlon referred to me as “your professor.” The problem for the union was that it was not harvest time, so the workers had little leverage. For a man like Donlon, only the threat of his tomatoes rotting in the fields had any chance of compelling him to sign a contract. I never did discover what the outcome was.

I had two other major assignments that took me away from La Paz. Otherwise, I worked in the office keeping track of the growers and taking part in daily life, which included occasional picketing, meetings of farm workers, campaigning for the reelection of the mayor of Los Angeles (Thomas Bradley), and so forth. Both assignments involved my testimony as an expert witness in precedent-setting legal cases. As mentioned above, the ALRA allows a union to file charges against an employer for refusal to bargain in good faith, and, if bad-faith bargaining is shown, the union can be awarded monetary damages. The first case was brought against Ernest Perry, a tomato grower and labor contractor, someone who recruited and provided farm laborers for other growers. Such people are basically shakedown artists, demanding bribes to take a desperate farm worker on a bus or truck to work on a grower’s farm. The growers thus distance themselves from the hiring decision.. As described in my story linked above, the hearing was out of a horror film. However, I had done my homework. Using an old and rejected (because the national labor board ruled it had no power to provide monetary damages in refusal-to-bargain cases) national case along with actual farm workers agreements and past wage and benefit data, I worked out a model that allowed me to estimate what workers lose when their employer bargains in bad faith. Suppose unions of farm workers obtained an agreement with growers in sixty days on average. I argued that any day over sixty days is a day of bad-faith bargaining. Then, I estimated the average gain in wages and benefits in a first union contract compared to what wages and benefits were before there was a union. I converted the gains into money and argued that this gain, calculated on a per day basis, could be multiplied by the number of days greater than sixty that bargaining had taken place. This gives the amount of money that the grower owes the union. It was easy to parry the questions of the growers’ (rather incompetent_ attorney. We won both this case and the second one I did, in Santa Maria, California, against Adams Dairy.

Unfortunately, my work at the UFW came to an abrupt end a few months after I got to La Paz. Chavez initiated a series of events that resulted in purges of many union staff, some of whom had been with the union for years. The purges were especially ugly and divorced from reality. People dedicated to the UFW were accused of being Communists, of being agents of the growers, of plotting against Chavez, and other baseless charges. One person, a friend, was charged with trespass (he lived at La Paz) and, at the behest of the union, arrested. Others were forced to leave in the middle of the night after being harassed and intimidated by Chavez allies. I was away, helping the workers of Donlon, when a particularly awful purge took place. When I got back to La Paz, I packed and left immediately.

Teaching Workers

In the late 1970s and early’80s, the Johnstown economy spiraled downward. The steel industry began a long period of decline, the result of both competition from more modern Japanese and German steel companies and the high interest rates initiated by President Jimmy Carter’s head of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker. The steel companies could no longer roll over their short-term debt, which was used for payrolls and the like. What this meant was that my evening school students were more likely not to be older adults but regular students, and these, in turn, were less likely to be the children of steel workers and more likely to be kids from the Pittsburgh suburbs. My new students were better off financially and not much interested in studying. Their politics, if they had any, were conservative and libertarian. The college put in place a business program, and this drained away most of my economics majors, who fell for the college line that this would be a route to a good job after graduation. All this depressed me; each year I became a bit less enthusiastic about teaching.

Then, in 1980, through a connection with a professor at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU), I became a labor educator. PSU had a Labor Studies program, part of which involved teachers going out into working-class communities and offering three-hour evening classes once a week for six weeks. Over the next thirty-five years, I taught such classes in Johnstown as well as in neighboring counties, including the Pittsburgh region, and then in different parts of the United States. I was paid a small wage to do these classes. I taught labor economics, labor law, collective bargaining, arbitration, and theories of the labor movement. Classes were in union halls, in motels, in elementary school classrooms, in community college classrooms, at an auto plant—just about anywhere convenient for workers. In almost all these classes, students came voluntarily, which was remarkable given that no college credit was given for the courses. I enjoyed these classes. I was aided by my hard-won ability to make complex ideas understandable quickly. Some of the students had been to college, but many had not. I was struck by how quickly they grasped the material and saw its relevance to their lives.

It was satisfying work, especially when something special happened. Several years after I began worker education, I applied to the state Department of Labor to become a labor arbitrator. In all collective bargaining contracts, workers have the right to file a grievance, a complaint that the employer has violated the agreement it reached with the union. The grievance procedure is usually one of steps, in the last of which the union and the employer agree on a neutral arbitrator to settle the dispute. The arbitrator notifies the two parties, and an agreement is reached as to the time and place of the hearing. The hearings have some formal rules, but they are less stringent than in a regular courtroom. My first arbitration was a grievance over a public employee who was fired for allegedly forging a receipt for steel-toed safety shoes. The shoes were necessary for his work, and the employer had agreed to reimburse workers for the purchase of such shoes. This worker was accused of cheating the company out of $15 by forging a receipt for $15 more than the price of the shoes. The employer’s case was full of holes, and they didn’t even bring the main witness to the hearing, relying instead on his sworn statement. The worker had been unemployed and had so little money that his grandmother bought the shoes for him. I ruled in favor of the worker, ordering his reinstatement with full backpay and seniority. The employer appealed my ruling to a regular court, but the court upheld my decision. Years later, I was teaching a group of workers in the small town of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, not far from where I attended college. After the first class, a man came up to me and said that he was the person whose job I had saved when I ruled that he did not steal from the employer. He was now the local union’s shop steward, the first level of union protection in a workplace and the person who files the grievances and confronts the employer at the workplace when any dispute occurs. This same student, a high school graduate with no college attendance, wrote an excellent piece for the local union newsletter comparing the ideas of the economist John Maynard Keynes and those of the neoclassical economists.

In another class in Johnstown, workers at a local plant that built heating and air-conditioning equipment taped every one of the classes in collective bargaining. They had been compelled by their own union to accept concessions for their employer, even though the collective bargaining contract was still in effect. The workers, one of whom was a student in one of my regular college courses, then used what they had learned to build a campaign against both the union and the company to rescind the concessions and restore the benefits they had given up. By preparing their workmates and planning a strategy and tactics with care, they got what they wanted.

Between 1980 and 2014, I taught workers, in person and online, in many places in the United States. In addition to PSU, I taught in Labor Studies Programs at Baltimore Community College, the University of Indiana, Cornell University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Whenever asked, I taught one-day classes for certain workers, including automobile workers, postal employees, and oil, chemical, and atomic workers. For many years, I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts to teach in a special Union Leadership and Activism (ULA) program at the University of Massachusetts. This was a credit program, in which students could earn a master’s degree (MA). I taught labor economics to scores of students. Many were excellent, and they kept me on my toes. I sometimes had them design a labor education program for their unions, and a few began such programs when they returned home. This was a way for students to become teachers. Something like this happened when I taught in a maximum-security prison in Pittsburgh. Incarcerated students would take special lecture charts that I had copied for them and teach others when they returned to their cells. This is what some of the ULA students did.

Something one of my ULA students said helped me see that the worker education I did was a good and worthwhile endeavor. He said, “Over your career, you’ve helped to educate an army of resistance.”


Within a few years of college teaching, I decided to begin writing essays and then books. Fortunately, the college did not demand that I write purely academic essays for professional journals. I could therefore devote my writing to the working class. I would write with and for them, and later, as my knowledge expanded, for the peasants of the world as well. I could convert my radical teaching to the written page. In this, I was lucky to discover two publishing outlets, South End Press in Boston, Massachusetts, and Monthly Review Press in New York City. My first two books were about U.S. labor law, written for working people so that they could understand the laws that most affect their lives. Then, I wrote a book for Monthly Review Press. Over my working life, I have now written eighteen books and many essays and reviews. In all my writing, the goal has been to help workers understand and change the world. I try to write with and for the oppressed. A complete list of my books can be found here. at

A Note on Repercussions

A radical life is not a recipe for conventional success. I have been fortunate in that I have not faced direct persecution for my beliefs and actions. When I lived in Johnstown, I was in a bar, and made a heated defense of Cuba in an argument with the man next to me. The bartender reached under the bar top for a baseball bat. I was verbally assaulted in a bowling alley for a comment I made that was reported in the local newspaper condemning the US invasion of Grenada. The garage to the house in which I was living was spray painted with anti-Communist graffiti. At the college, I was sometimes redbaited. I occasionally received threatening phone calls. When I wrote an article in the Nation magazine that offered relatively mild criticisms of Chavez and the administration of the UFW, the union’s lawyer threatened a lawsuit. I have been called senile for criticizing social democrats. The United States is so firmly anti-Communist that even many labor unions and federations are hostile to radicals. When I was recommended to teach in the worker education program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, redbaited me. If radical labor education is suspect, what hope is there for a militant and radical labor movement? But then, it is not unheard of for union meetings to begin with a reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance (to the US flag).

These have all been minor problems. I suppose the main repercussion has been a crude dismissal of anything unconventional. “Oh, he is a Marxist,” one professor said to a speaker who came to campus and whom I had sharply criticized. In other words, my criticisms were unimportant because I was a Marxist. A professor of Accounting redbaited me at a faculty meeting. If one argued strongly and passionately for or against any particular action, one was not being professional — meaning, again, that such a person couldn’t be taken seriously, or a person’s political positions always served to cover up a hidden and self-serving agenda. Our immediate supervisor, the chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, said that my friend Bruce and I were always “stirring the pot,” that is, making unnecessary trouble.

One advantage I had was that the left was so unimportant where I worked in Johnstown that I was ignored, and therefore free to teach as I pleased —and write what I pleased. Some people might not have liked what I said or did, but I wasn’t important enough for it to matter much. Of course, I had to be political, understanding that every organization is a political entity, whatever its presumed purpose is. Therefore, I have always tried to understand every place I have worked as a political organization. It was sometimes necessary to protect myself, making sure, as best I could, that I was treated fairly. If occasionally I had to flatter a dean, then that is what I would do. Even in many organizations that purport to be egalitarian and democratic, this is seldom the case; they have their own hierarchies, and some members are more powerful than others. It takes skill to navigate the inevitable internal politics while at the same time maintaining your own ideals of what is appropriate and comradely behavior. In any case, it is critical to have allies, people who will support and defend you when troubles come, as they always do.

As with the previous question, I end this one with some general comments. It is impossible to do labor organizing, to speak to workers who are organizing, work for a labor union, and teach working people without some understanding of the labor laws of the country in which you live. I use the term labor laws to include how these laws can be enforced and how they have been interpreted. I have written two books about U.S. labor laws: Labor Law Handbook, and Power on the Job: The Legal Rights of Working People. I studied economics as both an undergraduate and a graduate student, and there, I learned little about labor law, although I did learn something about the U.S. labor movement, collective bargaining, and how economists analyzed labor unions. When I began to do some organizing and other worker-related activities, I took up the study of labor laws and the labor-capital relationship in earnest, learning a great deal and trying to convey this to my students and those with whom I worked in labor actions.

The history of labor law in the United States is complex, and here we can give but a summary. Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, workers enjoyed few legal protections. They were simply “at-will” employees, meaning that they could be fired, demoted, paid a lower wage, and discriminated against for any reason, for example, race, religion, gender, union affiliation, and so on. Unions were accused of being criminal conspiracies against the public welfare or against the rights of nonunion workers. Employer-friendly judges routinely issued sweeping injunctions against workers who struck, picketed, or boycotted an employer. These injunctions forbade these union actions, and, if the workers defied the injunction, they could be fined or sent to prison. During the Depression, as a result of militant actions by workers and the election of pro-labor politicians, the federal government enacted the country’s major labor law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, after Senator Robert Wagner, the sponsor of the NLRA in the US Congress. The law gave workers new rights, including the right to form unions and bargain with employers over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment. Employers were forbidden from interfering with the new workers’ rights, and, if they did, the statute provided for a National Labor Relations Board empowered to hold hearings and set penalties that the employer was legally bound to obey. The Wagner Act excluded certain workers from its coverage: public sector workers in federal, state, and local governments; domestic workers (like my grandmother); and farm laborers (like those for and with whom I worked in California).

After the Second World War, a much more conservative US Congress, elected as the Cold War began and radicals in the labor movement were being targeted as subversives, enacted sweeping amendments to the NLRA. All union officers had to sign a statement that they were not members of the Communist Party of the United States. There was now a list of union unfair labor practices. Unions could not engage in secondary activities such as picketing the supplier of a firm whose workers were on strike. If a union engaged in a secondary activity, the National Labor Relations Act Board had to seek an injunction to stop the activity. No such injunction was mandatory when employers committed unfair labor practices. Showing their conservative character, most unions agreed to the signing of the anti-Communist statements, and eventually, the unions that refused (which were among the best and most militant in the country) were kicked out of the national labor federations. Beyond all of this, courts regularly weakened the NLRA with their rulings.

Public workers are not covered by the NLRA, but beginning in the 1960s, state and local government workers began to unionize and even (illegally) strike. This put pressure on state and local governments to enact legislation covering these workers. Most of the statutes enacted were patterned after the NLRA, though some workers, such as police, were prohibited from striking. (It is a legal irony that police are declared to be workers. They are manifestly not workers in any traditional sense, given that one of their main jobs has been to repress, often with violence, workers who were exercising their right to strike, picket, and boycott. Police have a constitutional right to form a union, but there is no excuse for any regular labor union to organize them, as several have done. The same can be said for prison guards. Former AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka shamefully said this: “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother [Brown was murdered by the cop in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014] who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother.”)

In my case, the University of Pittsburgh, which received large amounts of money from the state of Pennsylvania, was declared to be a public employer. Therefore, I had to learn the ins and outs of the Pennsylvania Employee Relations Act, which was passed in 1970. Similarly, when I worked for the UFW, I had to become familiar with California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, passed in 1975. For many years, I taught Labor Law to working people. Then I knew a great deal about many labor laws, some of which I have now forgotten. I taught workers about the mediation and arbitration provisions of some labor laws so they would be familiar with them. Governments at all levels have enacted laws that restrict the right to strike, insisting that the parties (labor and management) try non-strike methods of settling their disputes. In mediation, a neutral person is assigned to try to get the parties to agree to a settlement. Mediation, however, is nonbinding. In arbitration, the person or persons selected to arbitrate decide what the settlement will be. This can be appealed to a court, but the arbitrator’s decision must be given great weight, meaning that courts will usually uphold the arbitrator’s ruling.

My main lesson from my interrogation of various labor laws, my work as an arbitrator, and my participation in some collective bargaining and in some organizing, along with discussions with workers and students, is that the labor laws in the United States are woefully inadequate. The right to strike is surrounded by many restrictions, especially for public-sector workers. In addition, while workers have rights under the various labor laws, these rights are often inadequately enforced, and even when they are enforced, too much time has passed for the enforcement to mean much. For example, employers routinely fire workers for trying to form unions. This is illegal. But, by the time an employer is charged for violating the law, a hearing is held, all employer appeals are exhausted, and so on, it might be many months or even years before the workers get relief. They may be reinstated with backpay, but any money they earned in the meantime might be subtracted from the award. They may not want to or be able to return to work. In the interim, the employer has put fear into the workers because of the firings, and the union organizing drive dies on the vine. All of this is to say that radical reforms of the labor laws are badly needed. However, unions, while they are now enjoying something of a resurgence in the United States, are not strong enough to force labor law change. One final point here is that people trained to be lawyers, people who might be future judges, learn almost nothing about labor law. It is not a mandatory subject in most law schools, and, even when it is taught, the professor is often just a part-time teacher.

It is worth noting here that most workers lack any understanding of labor laws or even those current events that might directly affect their lives. Mainstream newspapers, for example, used to have a labor beat, one in which reporters were assigned to cover labor issues. This is no longer the case, with labor news typically placed in the Business section. Labor unions themselves seldom teach their members the ins and outs of the labor laws, though unionized workers do seem to have more knowledge than those not in unions. Media propaganda against workers and unions is widespread, and anti-union lobbyists work night and day to influence legislators at all levels of government to not enact any laws that increase the protection of workers. It is remarkable how often workers are blamed for inflation when they win higher wages, as if workers set the employers’ prices. They are blamed for driving employers out of business, forcing them to move, engaging in unwarranted violence, and so on. The entire climate is anti-labor. Yet, right now, unions are more popular than ever, reflecting decades of decline in working-class living standards. Getting this public support translated into greater union membership and greater worker power is another matter.

I’ll end here with an anecdote. When I was teaching union automobile workers in Pittsburgh, a man came up to me during a break in the class. He said, “You are opening a lot of eyes.” He and the others in the class were members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, one of the most iconic of all US unions. This is the union that led the famous sit-down strikes of the 1930s, a union led by left-wing leaders, and a union that won historic victories then and after the Second World War. I wondered why the union hadn’t opened the workers’ eyes. This told me everything I needed to know about the lack of knowledge within the U.S. working class—and it told me how important worker education is.

The interview was first posted in MR Online ( on February 13, 2024 with the heading “Interview with Michael D. Yates on Labor: Organization, Negotiation, and Education”.

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