Working (and Organizing) at the Weapons Plant

In the 1970s, when thousands of recently radicalized Sixties’ activists “colonized” industrial workplaces under the direction of various left-wing groups, there was no tougher nut to crack than military contractors. Not only were the working conditions as oppressive and dehumanizing as those in any steel mill, auto plant, or coal mine. As former Raytheon worker Jean Alonso reveals in her new shop-floor memoir, The Patriots, assembly line agitators in this sector also had to confront militarism, patriotism, and more than the usual amount of blue-collar machismo.

Alonso begins her account of working life at Raytheon in Massachusetts by describing the tense atmosphere there just before the first Gulf War. The Patriot missiles that she helped to produce, with soldering iron in hand, were much in demand because the U.S. was about to pummel Baghdad from the air and then evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, with a ground war launched from Saudi Arabia. Even in the Boston-area, “Yellow Ribbon” fever—pro-war sentiment–was running high among her fellow members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Alonso is a Harvard graduate, with a master’s degree in English from Tufts, whose personal turn toward the working-class was inspired by her “glory days and dark nights in several socialist groups” in the 1970s. By 1990, she was 53 and a financially hard-pressed single mother of two children; like any other Raytheon worker, she needed a paycheck to support her family. She had been a member of IBEW Local 1505 for 13 years, long enough for the factory to become “my second home, my second family, my life’s work.” In a wry description of her in-plant persona, she writes that:

“I build transformers for missiles and, in my dreams, peace and grassroots rank-and-file power . . . [P]eople like to appraise my politics, which make them both wary and amused. Sometimes, I feel on display—amazing, the pet radical, the only one in captivity, here at least. The one they have personally domesticated, fed, sheltered, and taken civic responsibility to contain. Odd, but theirs, and useful at times. A few years ago, they got fed up with how the union ignored all their grievances, so they voted me in as shop steward. “You’re a thorn in their sides, Jean,” they would chuckle, knowing that for conservative folks like them to send a radical woman into the ranks of the union officials was a nice shot across the bow.”

Saddam Hussein’s own shot across America’s bow in Kuwait had already made things more difficult for anyone dreaming of a more peaceful world back in Massachusetts. The Bay State’s own liberal-leaning Congressional delegation favored further the use of sanctions against Iraq before commencing formal hostilities in the Middle East. But, when Alonso made a motion at a local union meeting to support these Democratic critics of the Bush Administration, she was roundly booed.

It was not the first time Alonso took a brave stand on behalf of unpopular causes that were much easier to support in her own inner city neighborhood. (“At least I’m not a weirdo in Dorchester,” she tells a coworker, when discussing her participation in a peace vigil there. “Jeannie, let me give you some advice,” her fellow IBEW member said. “Don’t try it in the parking lot here, all right?”) Outside the plant gate, Alonso’s factory had long been picketed by Catholic war resisters and others in “the SANE–Freeze movement.” To many Raytheon workers, these protests seemed to target and stigmatize them personally. Even Alonso would, at times, “feel resentful that the peace people didn’t seem to understand the world of working people and our limited options when they looked down on us for making weapon parts.” Immersed in her new blue-collar world, she also found herself “getting annoyed at middle-class parties. I was resenting privileged types. And one day I awoke to the fact that I had acquired the often disguised, hidden, internal hallmark of many working class people: a sense of inferiority.”

Much of Alonso’s book (published last year by Leap Year Press) recounts conversations held, over a period of years, with a diverse group of coworkers, who met outside the plant to share ideas and experiences, support each other, and better understand the problematic culture and psychology of their own workplace. Members of this racially integrated circle included middle-aged workers and younger ones, men and women, married and single people. For the participants, these consciousness-raising sessions clearly became a haven in a hard-ass blue-collar world, a place of refuge from “narrow-minded, conformist patriotism” in the plant.

At Raytheon, the threat of more radical unionism was suppressed early on. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, some CIO-inspired Raytheon workers wanted to join the “the progressive United Electrical Workers Union,” then a powerhouse at General Electric in nearby Lynn, Massachusetts. By the end of World War II, the “more cooperative Brotherhood” had gained union recognition instead—“without a fight by the company.”

Thirty five years later, the IBEW was the very antithesis of a UE shop. At one “mandatory union retreat for stewards” (held on Cape Cod), Alonso was one of only three critics of the Local 1505 leadership among hundreds of stewards attending the training. Before it was over, an IBEW business agent, backed up by another man, pushed the author into a dark corner.

“Both started yelling that, with my pro-peace beliefs, I represented a threat to U.S. security just by working at the company. I denied it and excused myself to go into the room where dinner was being served. I chose a table at random and started to sit down, only to have one of the B.A.’s henchman yell, “I won’t have Alonzo the Red, at my table!” He tipped the table over toward me, sending china and food flying.”

Eventually, the company and the union conspired to put Alonso “into receivership as steward,” as one worker described her removal from office—because “she spent too much time on the members’ grievances.” Nevertheless, broader membership frustration over the dysfunction of their local finally reached the boiling point. In 1984, Raytheon workers mounted the first major challenge to incumbent local officers and board members in 35 years. Before this electoral campaign, it was just Alonso and a few other dissenters who “elicited shouting about ‘commies in our midst’ at union meetings when anyone brought up a question.” Now, “hundreds of very moderate rank-and-file members also got red-baited, which was . . . downright frightening for most workers.” (By the mid-1980s, I should note, one key leader of the IBEW at Raytheon had been elevated to the presidency of the Massachusetts labor federation, where he devoted much time and energy to red-baiting left-wingers in other unions, including this reviewer!)

The experience of open rebellion proved to be quite liberating for some of Alonso’s friends. They had long chafed under the rule of a right-wing company union that turned a blind eye to contract violations, not to mention racism, sexism, and outright misogyny on the shop floor. As an African-American coworker recalls in The Patriots, “It was the first time that damn union ever saw a slate of officers that had black people and women on it . . . Like we used to say, ‘The Union is Us!’ All of us, black, white or purple. Not to mention being willing to strike for the first time in thirty-five years.” Within the local’s burgeoning reform movement, members experienced real solidarity for the first time, while building something new within the shell of the old. As one younger worker told the author:

“Remember how wonderful it felt to go to campaign meetings—no intimidation and ridicule like at union meetings. There’d be hundreds of us from all over who didn’t really know each other. But the atmosphere of respect was awesome. I think we shared a dream of overcoming the low, mean relations [in the plant]. Of creating a new little world—we just called it a new union. And we almost had it.”

The reformers bid for office fell tragically short, by a few hundred votes in 1984. The opposition candidate for business manager—the top elected position in the local—did not appeal the questionable official tally. “He decided not to contest the union’s many violations of federal law governing union elections, knowing that everyone, even management and the incumbents’ own supporters, expected him to win the next election by a landslide.”

Sadly, that rematch never occurred. The sudden death of the reform movement’s leader several years later so disheartened some of his supporters that they just gave up and quit the company. Others, who remained at Raytheon, fell into organizational disarray. Alonso hints darkly at management’s behind-the-scenes role in the resulting “collapse into frightened silence.”

“Our production work was strategic to the power of the State, supplying the deadly force that underwrote it. Therefore, like certain oil-producing regions, we had to be kept under strict surveillance and control. The union was too strategic, the guarantor of a no-strike, stable, and compliant workforce. A reformed union, subject to the uncertainties of strikes, independent investigations, and participatory democracy, must have been judged to have an unacceptable level of risk.”

Four years after the reformers’ election defeat, Alonso and others regrouped around the more modest demand that IBEW Local 1505 create an official women’s committee. This rank-and-file organizing project proved to be no less threatening to the old leadership. So, a “guerilla women’s group” was formed instead, which proceeded to bombard “the hall” with “examples of contractual sexual harassment policies from other unions,” like the then-smaller “service sector women’s unions they were used to lording it over in the state AFL-CIO.” Because Raytheon union officials were not about “to insult their skilled trades power base with films or corrective education,” Alonso and her female coworkers organized their own program of education about unlawful forms of harassment on the job.

Their unofficial “Women’s Action Committee” also surveyed hundreds of female employees about discrimination in pay and promotions. They began agitating for flextime and on-site childcare. In 1989, they won “one big institutional victory—persuading the union to negotiate contract language forbidding sexual harassment.” Raytheon’s post-contract posting of formal “warnings to men to stop offensive sexual behavior” finally gave women “some back up in departments where it had previously been open season.”

Unfortunately, with every step forward, there was always some backsliding as well. In 1990, as Alonso ruefully reports, her women’s group “tried cooperation” with a new generation of local union leaders.

“We accepted a request not to oppose a slate of officers consisting of the sons of incumbents, in exchange for an official women’s committee and a partnership in policy making. “Let’s go forward into nineties together,” they said. When they won, they went back on all those promises. Having exclusive power to appoint all committees under the IBEW’s International Constitution, they appointed a women’s committee of their allies, which then refused to meet.”

In the mid-1990s, several years after Alonso retired, Raytheon recruited the same dutiful “sons of incumbents” to help lobby the state legislature for a big corporate tax break tied to maintaining local employment. The union aided the company because it had already lost thousands of jobs in layoffs, as management moved more of its Pentagon-funded work to a plant in Arizona or lower cost, non-union contractors. But, even after Raytheon got its sweetheart deal, Massachusetts job cuts continued—leaving Local 1505 with only 2,700 members by 1995. (At its peak, the local was more than 10,000 strong.)

In the Fall of 2000, under new (and long overdue) reform leadership, IBEW members finally struck the company for five weeks—to resist benefit concessions and further outsourcing. The resulting settlement gave strikers pension improvements, some relief on health care-cost shifting, and a new commitment from Raytheon to keep Patriot and Hawk missile production, along with new missile defense work, in its already much down-sized Massachusetts plants.

Alonso’s book deals very well with the complexities of union politics and shop-floor life at a company that continues to be a major Pentagon supplier. For readers interested in the organizational mechanics and political dynamics of local union reform, her book offers a wealth of instructive detail for academics and activists alike. Anyone still studying the long march of Sixties’ radicals through the existing institutions of organized labor will also benefit from the author’s insights into the obstacles they encountered along the way.

Steve Early was a Massachusetts-based union organizer for 27 years and is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

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Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

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