Busted by Law: Organizing in the Construction Industry

Black and white photo of Black man holding hose next to what looks like a cement mixer

Tom Coffin

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

There are, one supposes, any number of ways to be fired from a job. You might suddenly get a pink slip in your pay envelope. You might be dismissed summarily by an angry supervisor for some infraction of the rules. You might get a lecture from the boss, and the lecture might be self-righteous, or it might be apologetic, the boss stern or sorry. It all depends on circumstances. As for me, I got fired by phone.

"Brrinng,' says the phone. "Hello," says I. "Tom," says calm collected voice. "I have come to a decision. As of now you are terminated from the employ of Law Engineering Testing Co., Inc." "OK, Walt," I say. "For what reasons?" "For your words and actions to Charlie G. yesterday.' "Which words? What actions?" say. "For your words and actions to Charlie G. yesterday," says Walt the Boss, repeating himself.

Now Charlie G., who was my boss and the boss of about 15 others in Department 562 of the Atlanta Branch of Law Engineering Testing Co., Inc. (LETCO), Charlie G. and I, we did have some words the day before. Charlie said the most words.

"Tom," says Charlie, consulting a paper before him on the desk, 'Walt [the voice on the phone above] has made a Branch Commitment to staff a job for the LETCO branch in Houston. You are the only qualified person available to go. You will fly to Houston on Friday and will be on the job site in Amarillo, Texas, on Monday morning. The job will be essentially open-ended, but will last for at least three months. You will be entitled to travel home one weekend a month, on your own time. Per diem will be negotiated, but won't exceed $19 per day...."

I could have written the scenario. In fact, I had. There was scarcely an hourly employee in the Branch that I had not warned as to how I would be gotten rid of I would be shipped out to East Jesus somewhere, I'd refuse to go, and would either be forced to quit or be fired. I had few illusions: you win if you win, you lose if you don't. And we had lost, six months earlier, a unionization attempt here at LETCO.

Five years previously I had decided to change occupations and, not so incidentally, class positions. At the time I was co-owner, with three working partners, of a small one-truck-one-warehouse-household-and-office-furniture moving and storage company, and I was sick of it. My I feet were being destroyed by the heavy weights I was constantly carrying, rolling, pushing and pulling; my back felt under constant strain, muscle pull augmented by Truckdriver Kidney; I was beginning to detest taxes, insurance and Government Regulations; and I disliked, in a very nonpersonal way, the people met and did business with on a daily basis. Small businessmen may be an important segment of the petit-bourgeoisie in this country, but they are not a very exciting lot, personally or politically. So, at age 30, I sought to regain my roots in the working class and began looking into possibilities in the construction industry. Being the son of a rock driller and powder monkey, also felt I might have fairly good initial understanding of workers in the field.

My job search had scarcely begun when happened to observe little scene in front of a new Nieman-Marcus department store in a suburban Atlanta mall. Here little fill was being placed: a truck would back up, dump a pile of dirt, and roar off. A small dozer would push the pile flat it and spread it out. And round and round went a tractor, pulling I sheepsfoot roller, packing down the dirt. But most interesting of all was pickup parked nearby, tailgate down, loaded with an array of utensils – coleman stove, scales, sledge hammer, pickaxe, fry pans, knives and whatnot. The logo on the truck, a nice new white Ford, said: Law Engineering Testing Co., Inc. I looked around to see who belonged to this fine vehicle and, sure enough, there he was: on the steps in the shade, coffee cup in one hand, morning newspaper in the other, hardhat by his side, sat the one I sought. "Now there," said I to myself, "is a job I could get into." Two weeks later I did.


In September, 1973, I entered the construction labor force as an "Engineering Technician.” I was issued a wheelbarrow, a set of scales, slump cone, an old green truck and, after a week's break-in, sent out to test the concrete being placed in such buildings as Peachtree Center Plaza, the Omni, Peachtree Summit, Tower Place, and various and sundry parking garages, hotels, sewage treatment plants and the like. It was boomtime in Atlanta construction and LETCO, being best and biggest around in foundation engineering and materials testing, had the lion's share of this type of work on the best and biggest extravaganzas going. I was there, doing my job and enjoying myself immensely.

For I had backed into this particular job with a totally open mind – totally open, that is, to analyzing the work situation, identifying the contradictions within it, and attempting to organize, in any manner appropriate, the tensions and dissatisfactions engendered by the contradictions. My tools were to be whatever rudiments of Marxist methodology and perspective I had been able to absorb through study over the years, beginning with the dictum "concrete analysis of concrete situations."

Law Engineering is a relatively small company in terms of employees – roughly 600 in 15 branches throughout the Southeast – but is relatively large in terms of similar enterprises. In 1973 LETCO was listed in Engineering News-Record as the fifty-first largest engineering design firm in the nation, and in terms of its specialty of foundation engineering and materials testing, it was probably third or fourth largest. Begun in 1947 as a small, three-person operation, the company grew phenomenally during the ‘60s and early '70s, matching construction in the Southeast in those years. In 1960, gross income for the company was about $1 million; in 1968 the figure had jumped to $5 million a year; in 1973 the company took in $15 million and gross fees for 1974 (before the bottom fell out of the Southeastern construction market) were projected at over $20 million. This figure was finally reached in 1978. A new wholly owned corporation, Law International, formed in 1976 to do business in Saudi Arabia and (until just recently) Iran, was expected to double LETCO's revenues by the early '80s. At the time of this story, however, the Atlanta branch, with about 100 employees, was the largest and most successful of the LETCO empire.

Being a professional company in the service sector of the construction industry, LETCO generates revenues in two major interrelated ways. Consultant and professional engineering fees are a major source of income, with 25 to 35 graduate and registered engineers plying their profession within the LETCO structure at the Atlanta branch. Closely tied in with the working engineers are what might be called the "data gatherers," the geotechnical drilling crews and the various ranks of technicians –concrete, soils, radiographic, etc. These were the men, the non-professional hourly employed direct producers, that I was most interested in knowing.

The drill crews are most intimately tied to the design engineering function of the company, and their work is crucial: without the soil samples they retrieve and the boring logs, "blow counts" and other data which they generate, the sharpest engineering pencil or the most expensive hand-held programmable calculator is worthless. You can't be much of a geotechnical engineering firm without knowing what's down there.

Drilling and sampling is hard, heavy, dirty and dangerous work; the men who do it are large and strong almost as matter of course. At the LETCO Atlanta branch in 1973, five drill rigs operated, with crews made up of one "driller" and one or two "helpers." The five drillers were all 35 to 50 years old and all had been with LETCO for at least 10 years. These men were among the highest paid hourly employees, with wages in the $6 to $7 per hour range. Three of the drillers were white, two black. They were, in essence, working foremen, operating the drill rig and supervising the helpers. of the 11 helpers at LETCO Atlanta at this time, two were white, nine black; seven of them were in their early 20s, four were 35 to 50 (these four, all of them black, had been with LETCO for over 10 years). This group was the lowest paid of LETCO employees. Starting wage for a driller's helper in 1973 was $2.65 to $2.85 per hour; by 1978 it had increased to about $3.50 to $3.65. None of the helpers, including those who had been with the company for 15 years, was making $5 per hour in 1978.

If the drill crews could be considered the meat and potatoes of the company because of the essential nature of the work they do and the fees they generate, the second group of productive employees –the technicians – would have to be considered the gravy. These people perform essential inspection and quality control functions on heavy construction sites, but their work is much more a semi-independent adjunct to the engineering design function of the company. The technician normally works alone, performing tests and making quality control judgments and decisions in narrowly defined areas. Concrete technicians perform routine quality control tests on both plastic and hardened concrete, often moving from job site to job site during the day. Soils technicians largely observe and test structural soil fills; their job relies a great deal on actual experience, for the science itself is inexact. Non-destructive technicians deal primarily with structural steel, using a variety of analytical techniques, from radiographic to ultrasonic; theirs is, technically speaking, the most advanced and skilled of the technician groupings.

In contrast to the majority black (67 percent) drill crews, the technicians' ranks were largely white – 23 out of 27, or 85 percent. Half the technicians, all four blacks and 10 of the whites, were under 30 years old. Half again (two blacks, 11 whites) had been with LETCO less than five years; six of the technicians, all of them white, had more than 10 years of service, two of them over 20 years. The pay scale was slightly higher for technicians than for the drill crews – a starting concrete technician in 1973 was paid $2.90 to $3.15 per hour; by 1978 this had been raised to $4.05 to $4.20 per hour. Fully two-thirds of the technicians earned less than $5 per hour in 1978, with the highest paid making slightly better than $7 per hour.

These differences – between job categories, race, age, experience and pay scale – were the key contradictions within the workforce, the elements which would threaten unity, create sources of suspicion and mistrust, and ultimately lead to defeat in a unionization attempt unless they were dealt with properly. In order to reach unity, that which is common to all the various classifications must become strong enough to overshadow the contradictions.


I had been on the job a full year before making any attempt at organizing.

That time was spent in getting to know the job and the job situation and meeting and getting to know my workmates. This latter task proved particularly difficult. By and large, we would work alone at widely scattered sites, seeing each other briefly and intermittently, sometimes not at all.

There were technicians in my department had not met after three years on the job. Contact between technicians and drillers was almost non-existent, and between the drill crews themselves communication was almost as bad. The drill crews spent a goodly portion of their time on out-of-town jobs, often being away from home several weeks at time. Only by consciously seizing opportunity at every chance meeting did I know names and faces of half the drillers and helpers by the end of a year's time.

Nonetheless, by early autumn of 1974, conditions were improving for organization. Several people expressed open discontent and anger over unexpectedly and undeservedly low salary increases being doled out by the company; a hiring moratorium and a policy of forced Saturday work had been imposed; some people had been threatened with possible layoffs. Subjectively, people were becoming open to alternatives and to possible organization. Objectively, however, the conditions giving rise to this consciousness were mostly negative and foreboding. The construction industry in Atlanta and the Southeast was shriveling in response to the deepening recession in the worldwide capitalist economy. The technicians were still busy, even overworked, on ongoing projects, but the end-point of the large, sustaining projects was rapidly approaching. The drilling department was scrambling for work; drilling is normally done far in advance of construction, and few construction starts were being anticipated at this time.

Still, organization is a process, not an event, and must be started sometime. I initiated discussions with individuals and called meetings; between September and December four meetings were held, attended by four to six people, all technicians. Knowing that unionization was highly unlikely in the developing economic climate, I nonetheless hoped to create a core group for further organization.

This task too proved difficult; though individually certain people could be counted upon to do certain things, at no time, either at the first or later, would there emerge a body of people willing to make decisions and attempt to carry them out.

Nevertheless, these early meetings were productive, for two reasons: first, the question of unionization was firmly placed on the agenda for LETCO; and the question of which union to seek affiliation with was largely settled. We first made contact with the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 926, in November, 1974.

By early 1975, however, there was no question of unionization. The building trades are particularly vulnerable to the boom/bust cycle of capitalism. When the economy falters, masses of construction workers are among the first to hit the streets. Capitalist recession and depression may well lay more stark and bare the gross inequalities and injustices of the system – a situation which is most instructive to all wage workers and which leaves them more conscious and open – but it is also a fearful and insecure time, hardly a time to test strength and determination. Two years would pass as the construction market slid, bottomed out, then feebly started to rise again. At LETCO, people were laid off for the first time in 25 years; work rules were tightened; people were fired; two driller helpers, one with the company for 14 years, the other 12, were "let go" for not having driver's licenses; the company “$40-hour guarantee" was reduced to 32 hours and then eliminated; wage increases were minimal – 5.5 percent typically, in an economy of 11 percent inflation. People chafed and complained, but not too loudly. Survival is a strong instinct.

The economy finally started its current upswing late in 1976, and by early 1977 it was clear that another boom was developing for heavy construction in Atlanta and the Southeast. In mid-January I wrote a letter suggesting a meeting in two weeks' time. Initial response to the letter was encouraging. The five persons originally contacted all said yes, they would meet. And all agreed to invite others. In all, four drillers and helpers and eight technicians were contacted, each one responding affirmatively. On the day of the meeting, firm commitments to attend were re-wrung from six of the 12. On my way home stopped to help a technician whose car was stalled, invited him to dinner and explained to him about the meeting. He decided to accept the dinner invite and stay for the meeting. He was one of the two who showed up. The effort died aborning.


Winter turned spring, and spring approached summer. I continued to have conversations with individuals and discussions with groups. A few others also began to initiate discussions on their own. Most of the people, however, responded with agreement as to the job situation and with interest in unionization, but also with a passive, "Whatever you want to do, Tom, you do it…" So it was not with utter confidence that l wrote another letter in mid-May calling for another meeting.

Again, eight technicians and four drillers, all of whom had spoken positively of unionization in the preceding months, were hand-delivered this message. All responded with firm commitments to "be there." On the day of the meeting, as you may guess, only two people showed – young, white, single technicians, one of whom had been with the company only six months. We got drunk on home brew, discussed the whys and wherefores of unions, and righteously denounced our fellows. We also decided to move ahead. We each signed an Authorization Card designating Local 926 of the IUOE our bargaining agent and each took additional cards to get signed. The effort would remain clandestine; each person signing a card would be told that nothing further would be done with the cards until minimum of 15 people had signed and a meeting had been called of those people.

The next week, two more cards were volunteered; one from a white 20-plus-year veteran of the company, the only Certified Senior Engineering Technician at the branch, mightily pissed that he did not yet have a "desk job" but beginning to realize that he might never get that job, who signed over his wife's objections that he "not get involved;" the other from a young black technician who had five years' experience, with wife and new baby – "Well you know man, I like what you say when you say the time is ripe, 'cause it's ripe for me too. If it don't work I won't stick around noway anyhow."

Slowly, other cards trickled in. It was not till the end of August that, finally, 15 cards were in hand, and five others who had promised to sign cards when 15 others had, signed also. The 20 signatures were given to the president of Local 926, Tommy Archer, who agreed to set up a meeting at the Building Trades Hall for the forthcoming Sunday. This meeting, at last, was well-attended: two drillers, both white; two driller helpers, both black; and seven technicians, one of them black. Local 926 was represented by Business Agent Bill Hall and the union's attorney, James Langford. Together we looked hard at the situation, particularly the timing. Here we were, a week after Labor Day, looking at winter and our slow time, the time we would be the weakest; we had less than half the hourly workforce on cards, and that had been a tooth-pulling process; the construction economy, though recovering, was not yet healthy. On the positive side, we were clearly developing strength and momentum which could be used; everyone was working long hours and expected to continue until the rains came in December or January; November was the time designated by the company for the yearly "salary review" of the drillers and technicians and would be a "natural" event around which more people could be organized; LETCO would be having a very good profit showing for the year despite poor first and second quarters and would not be in a position to poor-mouth too loudly. We decided at this meeting to give ourselves two more weeks to sign more people. We agreed that we would try to get 75 percent on cards, with at least 50 percent of the drilling department. If we could not, we agreed to shelve the idea for that year and try again in the spring. We did not reach our goal, and folded our tents.

Significant progress, it seemed to me, had been made. In addition to the 20 people who had signed authorization cards, 15 others had been contacted concerning the union. Of these, nine were wavering favorably; five had expressed neutrality, i.e., "I'll do what the majority wants;" and only one person had expressed disinterest and slight hostility. Of the remaining 10 hourly employees, about half had not been contacted purposely, the rest simply because they were on out-of-town jobs and unavailable for those months. Thus over three-quarters of the hourly workforce was knowledgeable about the unionization build-up – and no one squealed. Insofar as I can determine, management was totally unaware of what was happening. It was pig heaven in the boardroom: money just pouring in, everybody working overtime; big plans on the boards; just squeeze a nickel here and dime there to get that Middle East venture going, then we will be in the chips, the big time..

The workers, meanwhile, were not at all in the chips, still trying to deal with this year's prices on last year's money. Since there was no hiding the amount of work the company was doing, since we were the doers, people were truly expecting large salary increases come November. Many people had been expressly told by their supervisors that in November, "things would be made up." This belief in the company's "do right" attitude was a major reason why some people were hesitant about signing cards they would give the company "one more chance." I have little doubt that had the company's salary increases even approached a reasonable level, our plans for the spring might have been jeopardized.

Little time was spent worrying about that unlikely happening, however. My case was typical; if anything I was treated better than most. I was told, somewhat apologetically by my supervisor, who is a decent person, that my raise would be 4.5 percent; in cash that would translate to $.26 an hour, $45.00 per month. What could one say but "Gee Whiz, Thanks!"


People were dissatisfied, hurt and angered by the company's miserliness and arrogance. One young radiographic technician was particularly incensed and immediately called meeting. Many people came – technicians, drillers, even two secretaries. A petition was drafted, demanding an immediate, across-the-board salary increase for all hourly employees; equal pay for equal work; and a rational system of differentials for relative experience and ability. In two days, 38 people, including five secretaries, had signed the petition, and an Hourly Employee Committee of four had presented it to the Boss.

The company responded with a great show of concern.A branch meeting was called, chaired by the branch manager and featuring the company president, explaining and justifying the salary policy, with charts and graphs and the whole 10 yards. It was a stormy, totally enjoyable session. At the end, the branch manager had promised to make a "comprehensive review" ­– on, of course, an "individual basis" – of the salary situation, "to make sure no one was out of line;" and the company president had uttered the classic line that it was "a sin and a shame" that the company could afford to pay its employees no more.

On the basis of that review, a few individuals were given additional salary increases of $75 to $100 per month; a few more were given token increases of $15 to $35 per month; but most of the hourly employees were simply told that they were not "out of line" and would receive nothing more, like it or lump it. Shortly thereafter, on December 31, the company quietly split its stock two for one. maintaining the per share dividend. Thus the company president doubled his dividend receipts from $9,288 per year to $18,576 in one fell swoop, truly "a sin and shame."

The stage was set then a for a major push in the spring of '78. So on February 1 I wrote and distributed widely another letter calling for meeting two weeks hence.

It said, in part, that "We proved two things in November and December: (1) that the company, left to its own devices, had no intention of giving any more than the most token increases to hourly employees; and (2) that organization, even the most minimal organization such as was fostered by hourly employees, to attempt to fight back resulted in some success…” 

On February 16 an initial meeting was held, and we decided to recontact the IUOE and start signing authorization cards once again. By mid-March a scant majority (21 of 41) had signed cards; 19 of these cards came from technicians, only two from the drilling department. With 70 percent of the technicians and only 14 percent of the drillers on cards, the union representative suggested carving out a unit of all technicians, severing the drilling department. l argued that we would be much stronger with the drillers, and suggested a week-long push to sign six more wavering drillers and helpers, giving us a clear majority in both areas. Five of the six did sign by the deadline, and we decided, with 63 percent of the hourly employees on cards, to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, incorporating as a unit both technicians and drillers.


It was with apparent surprise and consternation that company officials responded to the news that reached them, by letter, on April 3. All the department heads and assorted management honchos disappeared into the conference room, and the parking lot filled with the big cars of, presumably, corporate officials. The prize for the biggest car, however, went to a sleek shiny dark green Cadillac with South Carolina plates. This car was the property of Thompson, Mann and Hutson, attorneys-at-law. This firm represents and keeps non-union such giants in the heavy construction field as Daniel Construction Company. The senior partner, Robert Thompson, had been a partner in the firm of Thompson, Ogletree and Deakins, of J.P. Stevens fame; he was also general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaking widely for them on the evils of unionism. We were matched with the pros.

The company's immediate response was to create a climate of uncertainty: rumors started flying, emanating from supervisors who, quite suddenly, were seeking out employees to buddy-buddy with. To the technicians: "The company will just phase out its technician service over several years." To the drill crews: "Next winter you'll be sitting in the union hall, just waiting." One of the older technicians anxiously asked to get his card back because of the "Right-to-Work Law." On April 6, the first letter signed by the branch manager appeared:

Law Engineering Testing Company is totally opposed to the unionization of any group of our employees. All things considered, we know of nothing constructive this union has to offer. We intend to resist this attempt to recruit dues-paying members from our employees with all legal means available.

Coupled with this hard-line attitude in one breath, in the next the company set itself up as a benign, almost neutral, arbiter of the future:

The outcome of that vote will determine whether the union will be the sole spokesman for these employees. This matter is of the utmost importance to you and your family. I urge you to get all the facts, to ask questions and to evaluate the matter fully and carefully.

These themes – the company's "total opposition to unionization" and their intent to resist "with all legal means available;"; the lack of anything "constructive" offered by the union; the union's supposed interest in nothing but monthly dues, fines and assessments; the union's role as "sole spokesman" and exclusive bargaining agent for all employees; and the suggestion that "all the facts" would not be forthcoming from the union – would be touched on again and again in the blizzard of paper sent to each employee in the two months prior to the election. 

The company's power extended beyond the written word, of course. One of our major weaknesses was depth of leadership I was carrying far too much of the planning and organizing load, though some others were beginning by the time we had filed for an election to become more active in contacting others. On April 10, one week after filing, I was on my way to work on the embankments to Wallace Dam, a Georgia Power facility under construction on the Oconee River in central Georgia. This project was 100 miles from Atlanta and would entail 12-hour days and six-day weeks. Given the distance and the exhausting schedule, I would be forced to live near the site. The only good thing about the situation was the WATS line provided by Georgia Power, free and direct to Atlanta. This line did hum nightly.

At first I saw my elimination from the actual scene a potential blessing in disguise, thinking that it might force others into taking more active roles. For a time it worked: contact work, both in terms of convincing additional people and "mending fences" with those already in our camp, was split up between several different people, with me acting as long-distance telephone coordinator. But then something totally unanticipated (by me, at least) began happening.

Objectively, the state of the construction economy appeared excellent for our unionization attempt. However, right before our eyes, this "good thing" turned into its opposite for our chances of success – with the burgeoning of the construction market came also the rapid expansion of the job market. Suddenly people were getting job offers and, dissatisfied with their situation, accepting them. Faced with the prospect of a potentially losing battle, several people opted for individual upgrading somewhere else and abandoned ship. In all, five technicians, each one key in terms of the expanding organizational duties they had undertaken and their influence on others, left for other jobs in the course of the campaign. How demoralizing this depletion in our ranks was is difficult to judge; that their leaving influenced the outcome is undeniable.

Nonetheless I remained pretty confident of victory. had been able to answer the company's blizzard of paper with a modest snowstorm of my own – five letters which the IUOE accepted as their own and mailed to each person in the bargaining unit. The union also wrote two letters – probably more effective than mine in terms of agitational propaganda – close to the end of the campaign. My final tally, based on personal phone calls to virtually everyone not adamantly opposed to the union, resulted in "sure" yes vote of 17 out of 40 (43 percent); a "probable" yes vote of 26 out of 40 (65 percent); and a "possible" yes vote of 31 out of 40 (78 percent). In contrast, I listed the company with only four sure votes (10 percent) and only nine probable votes (23 percent).

Thus you might imagine my surprise, chagrin and bewilderment as the lady from the NLRB counted the votes: "No, no, no, no, no, yes, yes, no, no, no. ... Final vote: 26 no, 12 yes, two abstentions. We were soundly beaten.. 


So what happened?

A statistical breakdown of the people who signed authorization cards compared to the people who voted yes might give some clues:

·      All five of the five black technicians signed cards; two voted yes, one voted no, two left for other jobs.

·      Sixteen out of 27 white technicians signed cards; six voted yes, 17 voted no, four left.

·      Six black driller's helpers and one white driller signed cards; four of the helpers voted yes, one was fired (and given a much higher paying job with the Operating Engineers).

·      In terms of age, 18 of the 21 technicians under 30 signed cards; four voted yes, eight no, six left. Three of the 11 technicians over 30 signed cards; four voted yes. In the drilling department, four out of five under 30 and three of 10 over 30 signed cards; all four yes voters were under 30. 

·      In terms of pay, 15 of the 17 technicians making under $5 an hour signed cards; six of the 15 making over $5 signed. Of these, four making less than and four making more than $5 voted yes; four making less and two making more quit. Of the drillers, five of nine making under $5 an hour and two out of six making more signed cards; the four yes votes came from the lower paid people.

What we first see from the figures is an extreme instability and vacillation among the young white workers. These people were also the easiest and quickest to organize. By contrast, the older white workers remained firm in their resolve once they made a decision. Among the black technicians, a surprising (to me) vacillation occurred, with two people leaving and one changing his mind. This fact might be partially explained by the "upwardly mobile" aspect of the job classification – "qualified" blacks are as much in demand in construction as elsewhere, as companies compete to fulfill their "affirmative action" quotas. Compare their weakness, for example, to the strength displayed by the young black men in the more dead-end, manual labor jobs on the drill crews. Interestingly enough, none of the four older black men who had been with the company for many years and yet remained among the lowest paid employees, voted for unionization. This fact shows the line of demarcation between those black men who came of age in the segregated South of the '50s and early '60s and the younger blacks who grew up in the changing, turbulent late '60s and early '70s; it may indicate that black passivity in the face of white dominance is a thing of the past.


This seems a good place to stop, ignoring the "decent interval" accorded me by the company between the lost election and my ringing phone. I, of course, filed discrimination charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Law Engineering, and the NLRB issued a complaint. But, as so often happens in American politics which pit the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless, the deck, already stacked, was reshuffled before the hand was played – and then the dealer pulled one out from the bottom.

As my hearing date approached, I became concerned that I had not heard from my NLRB lawyer. When called him to find out what still needed doing, was informed that he no longer was handling the case and, indeed, had "no idea" who was. After some scurrying around, a lawyer was assigned to the case, with less than two weeks to prepare, and as usual she was plenty harried. Nonetheless, I was told I had little to worry about, that the case was sufficiently developed. That was the first meeting. Before the second meeting, I was called and informed that LETCO wanted to settle for cash if I would waive reinstatement. I refused.

Then came the shocker. At the final meeting scheduled with the NLRB lawyer three days before the hearing, I was informed that the NLRB was going to withdraw the complaint and dismiss the case. The reason? The company's lawyers apparently produced 3 memo, supposedly written in 1977, which stated I had been informed at that time that would sometime have to make a choice between accepting out-of-town work or losing the job. Everyone admits that I had never seen this memo, but nonetheless the NLRB regional director, Curtis Mack, in all his wisdom, decided I had no case and not even any right to challenge this fraudulent, conveniently discovered memo in court hearing. And thus did end this little chapter of the class struggle. 


How To Bust a Union

The backdated letter, like the one Law Engineering produced to justify firing Tom Coffin, is not an unusual device for employers to use against pro-union workers. At a Congressional Hearing of the Subcommittee on Labor Relations in October, 1979, a UAW representative presented a transcript of an instructor's advice to a management seminar on busting unions. During the session, Fred R. Long of the West Coast Industrial Relations Association told his audience, 

"What happens if you haven't… any consistent pattern [record of evidence]? What you do is backdate about six memorandums prior to when union activity started… You are the plant manager, you write your personnel director a letter backdated about 15 months before the union activity started…

"There is no way the [National Labor Relations] Board can touch it… you have a tremendous advantage over the union when you go to a hearing… Fortunately for all of us… there is no such thing as perjury in a Labor Board proceeding… To some of you, that may seem unethical. That is the way this business is.”

Such advice is not restricted to one region or one antiunion association. Consider one of Atlanta's union busters, McNeil Stokes, an attorney who specializes in construction labor law. Stokes recently went to Los Angeles to teach a group of 30 contractors how to fight labor organizers at their sites. "First," he counsels, "you go out and fire that person you have been meaning to fire for six months,” using such excuses as shoddy work or failure to cooperate with work assignments. 

–compiled from the AFL-CIO's "Report on Union Busters," Issue No. 9, and Business Week, November 12, 1979.

Ron Short: Somebody said, "You can't change the institutional structures with 2 hammer or saw.” Well I beg to differ. That's the best tool you got. You got to start with your best shot. If you know how to do that, if that is your specialty, then damn sure bank on that because if bankers could build buildings you wouldn't be out there hammering nails.

Mark Thompson (Fourth & Gill neighborhood, Knoxville, Tennessee): For 18 months I’ve been driving around with the same two helpers, training them, and they’re good at stopping a leaky faucet.

I’ve explained it time and again we’ll prowl around under a house and look at the pipes and I'll try and explain what's going on with a system of pipes, why that pipe goes through there and why this one's over here. These guys I've been training were talking about getting their licenses. Well I know what the test is. The test doesn't ask a thing about how you diagnose a problem with a toilet making funny noises. How do you unstop a drain, how do you stop a leaky faucet? None of those things have anything to do with getting plumbing license. And that's as much training as we can do in a weatherization program.

Henry Hammer (Twin Oaks Community, Louisa, Virginia): In trying to train people with a low skill level women coming into construction in particular it seems like you can give them too little or too much and you gotta be really careful, pay a lot a of attention to give them the right amount. It's a situation of learning an individual and how they learn, then helping them. I've learned more about how to hold a hammer teaching folks who've never hit a nail very well before in their life, I'm sure. I can do things I didn't know could do by having to teach them. We developed the system at Twin Oaks where after you've done something for about one month, you 're all of a sudden obligated to teach someone else how to do it. Works pretty well because it narrows that experience gap somewhat. But it's really important for a teacher to constantly think "what it was like when I really didn't know how to do this," remember the first day somebody said, a "Here's a Skilsaw and this is how you hold it.”

John Cline: I was interested in finding out how much cost we could save and therefore how many lower-income people we could build for through our own efficiency. We worked on that and we've done well. We can build a three-bedroom house with 1,000 square feet, Farmers Home Financing, that's well done but not fancy and have it finished in three weeks. But even when we do everything right, or do the best we can, the fall comes and you can't even get a car out to the house we're building. So then you spend money fixing the road and stop building and try to organize a committee to fix the road. Now other people are going through the process of building, like the clinic near us. There's lots of people around that struggle with land, what's being done to it and how to get it. Maybe we should be meeting them collectively. By ourselves we're not going to do a hell of lot. It's going to take a long time. Unless we start bridging some gaps between us and some other community groups our power is pretty limited. 

Dan Whitmore: How many private contractors can build houses and sell them to low-income families? There's very few private contractors that can afford to do that. There's just no profit in it. The only way that low-income houses are getting built is through non-profit corporations as I see it. Maybe through labor programs. We use DOL funds for some of our labor and we use some CETA workers. We sell a $25,000 house for as much as the family's income will allow them to borrow through Farmers Home • usually $16,000 to $18,000. There's no way a contractor can build the kind of houses we're building for that kind of money.

Randy Neprash: Are you putting up the house for $18,000 or do you have a subsidy?

Dan Whitmore: Well, we work under grants and churches give us money.  

Randy Neprash: So even on a non-profit basis it really can't be done?

Dan Whitmore: We try to recover 10 to 20 percent of our labor costs in the price of the house. Oftentimes we don't do that. Most of it has to come from other sources.

Susan Fowler: So what I'm hearing is that you can't build low-cost housing without having somebody who wants to give up this opportunity to make a profit or somebody who wants to give away money to a foundation or a non-profit corporation.

Neill Herring was unable to attend the meeting but mailed in the following piece of his mind later. Neill is a carpenter and writer in Atlanta:

The shape of the mind during the working day, the variety of attitudes assumed, probably differ little in most particulars from those found in the skulls of other wage workers, house painters notwithstanding. Yet there is this thing of getting done, being finished, knowing with assurance that one day one will leave, return at his own option, or not at all if that suits him, for the job will be finished. Each motion then, batting error (and even then the worker thinks he is not wasting motion, save when he is tearing out bad work), is a step toward that completion, a positive move that brings the time of having got done closer, and by a measurable increment.

It would seem – but one can only hope – that there is message in what we do that others might do well to hear, particularly those in the great social enterprises of "rationalized industry," where leaving no more symbolizes completion than arriving. But just as spoken communication can be spoiled by shouting or whispering, there is much in this message that we are building that is lost, garbled or misunderstood.

For while the construction process is ferocious at organizing, defiant of its opposite, in fact utterly intolerant of any misstep, and while that characteristic (alright, virtue) sorts people and functions more ruthlessly than any five-year plan ever conceived, there looms behind, the end to which it is all put. Almost as if calculated to condemn the meaning of the building process, the things we build counter and overwhelm the very values that make them possible.

As surely as two workers will use their minds and bodies in concert with scores of others before and after, coordinating their movements into a complex relationship with material that expresses a mutuality, dependence and independence, sacrifice and caution – all with a comprehensible beginning, middle and end – to rear some structure, that structure will be used to define an order defiant of those relations.

Do not fear that this is becoming a rant at monopoly capital or state capital or what have you. Nor will it find an end in clarion rings for revolution reordering the world's people into crews for production or reproduction. But there is a sort of longing, an idea that maybe we shouldn't engage in activities that can't "organize themselves," at least to the extent that they can't be accomplished without some of the basic relation that places those two workers in contact with that stuff that sets a post or raises a lintel. Two types of organization which would be eliminated at the outset are military and bureaucratic, where tasks are defined, not defining, where continuation renders completion impossible, where arriving and leaving are all the same thing.

For building, practically alone among modern endeavor, still stands as a bastion against the industrial revolution, that presumed fact of life for over 100 years. While the materials have been subverted, the masons who laid the arches and the carpenters who built the falsework under them have been swept away by whoever and whatever it is that makes pre-stressed beams, there is still, overwhelmingly, the demand at bottom, that hands must be laid on, 10,000 times 10, or she will not rise.