‘Newby Years’ Transformed Local Labor Movement
By Dexter Arnold
David Newby will retire as president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO this fall. In the 1980’s Newby led a reform movement in the South Central Federation of Labor. Dexter Arnold, his friend and comrade, recounts how those turbulent “Newby Years” transformed the local labor movement. –ed.
Heads turned when Madison Building Trades President Babe Rohr walked into a December, 1979 meeting at the Steelworkers’ Hall where a group of Madison Federation of Labor delegates was choosing an opposition slate for the upcoming Fed election. Babe stayed just long enough to give us a name, declaring “this is nothing but a rump group.” Once he left, the new Rump Group, a loose collection of delegates from public sector, printing trades, and some industrial locals picked David Newby to run for Fed president.
David narrowly lost but won two years later. The 1982 victory showed the respect David had earned through years of networking and solidarity work. It also reflected reformers’ decade of struggle to make the Fed the hub of an activist, solidarity-based local labor movement – a struggle that David played a key role in expanding and coordinating.
Inside & Outside
Efforts to remake the Fed were part of broader 1970s’ labor ferment. What set Madison activists apart from many solidarity coalitions was a two-pronged strategy of working within the Fed while taking action outside it when necessary. Fed reformers believed that institutional structures and resources mattered and could be used to build solidarity and maximize participation from all sectors of the labor movement. The Fed’s accomplishments since 1982 have proved us right, showing how an activist, democratic labor council can promote a vital, inclusive movement with wide-ranging programs that expand involvement and increase unionists’ ability to do together what we can’t do alone. In the 1970s, the Madison Fed was very different from today. The nine Executive Board members were all men, five from the Building Trades. Candidates for Fed offices had no right to see a list of delegates. There were no education programs. Endorsed political candidates received little help. And labor solidarity meant a motion of support.
By the late Seventies, meetings had become more interesting as delegates debated issues and challenged the chair. What became the Rump Group was still a minority, but reformers were gaining credibility through persistence and solidarity work.
The leadership could not count on all its allies for key political endorsements but usually got its way on other important issues. When delegates from striking newspaper unions asked for a Labor Day table to sell subscriptions to their newspaper, the Press Connection, Fed President Marv Brickson killed the request citing legal advice that we would have to invite the scab papers, too. That would have livened up Labor Day, but Marv’s ruling stood.
The Executive Board’s 1979 attempt to replace the Labor Day celebration with a Saturday bingo night gave reformers an opportunity to show we could organize and produce results. The leadership argued that longtime Labor Day workers were burnt out but had made no effort to involve others. After losing the vote, Marv challenged the delegates for a volunteer to run Labor Day. MNI striker Chuck Arnold stepped up and with the help of Hank Haslach (AFT Local 3220) and others coordinated a successful event with fresh volunteers and a first-ever educational program.
Making Solidarity Real
A key issue driving change was local union support, especially the Fed leadership’s indifference to the Madison Newspapers strike. Officially, the Fed supported the MNI workers, but any solidarity work at the Labor Temple took place informally in the bar after delegates’ meetings. While the leadership sat on its hands, David and other Fed delegates organized strike support outside formal Fed structures.
During the 1980s, revitalizing labor councils was not on the AFL-CIO’s agenda. Both the State AFL-CIO and the regional AFL-CIO were suspicious of the Madison changes. There were benefits to being a thousand miles from AFL-CIO headquarters, however. Relative isolation made it easier to experiment and to focus on activities that made sense for Madison. Recreating the Fed was an ambitious project. There were disappointments and some efforts were slow to gain traction, but enormous changes occurred between 1982 and 1986. Solidarity became the bedrock of Fed activities. Meetings were more open and democratic. Existing committees became more active. A new organizing committee, education programs, community alliances, and media outreach broadened the Fed’s agenda.
As involvement increased and the Fed’s culture and direction changed, David continued to reach out to all sectors, insisting that despite differences, we were one movement.
Besides showing up on all picket lines, David contacted union leaders to ask how the Fed could help. The Newby era almost ended at raucous Greyhound picketing when David stood in front of a bus that a scab was about to put into gear. Other early strike support backed Straus Printing and building trades workers. At first, most activists came from familiar solidarity networks, but turnout was now a Fed project. The Fed helped local leaders strategize, assisted with media outreach, helped organize rallies, raised money to buy two tons of food for the Straus workers, and worked with local unions challenging public contracts and development funds for unionbusting employers.
The 1985-86 UFCW Local P-9 strike at Hormel had a big impact on Madison labor. UFCW officialdom branded solidarity with the Austin, Minnesota strikers as meddling in the UFCW’s affairs. Their opposition threatened to force delegates to conduct solidarity work solely through the independent P-9 Support Committee. Fortunately, UFCW Local 538’s executive board, which enthusiastically backed the P-9ers, asked the Fed to participate in its food caravan. Making the most of this request, the Fed collected donations; several carloads of delegates joined the caravan; and David spoke at an Austin Labor Temple solidarity rally at a time when the national labor establishment had lined up against the P-9ers. This effort strengthened the Fed’s solidarity networks and set the stage for work on out-of-town struggles like Pittston and Staley.
A New Kind of Labor Council
Soon after taking office, David launched the Dane County Coordinated Organizing Committee. Besides supporting campaigns, the project sought to promote organizing and develop leads. We wanted to spark activity in all sectors but were particularly interested in Madison’s large private-sector white-collar work force. To generate leads, the committee wrote radio ads and held public workshops on job issues. Union members liked hearing pro-labor ads and dozens of unorganized office workers attended a health and safety workshop. But there were no solid leads. Without a commitment from international unions to sustained basic organizing, this effort went nowhere.
Education & Service
Before 1982, the Fed had ignored education activities other than Union Counselor training. Now, the Dane County Labor History Project dug into Madison workers’ history, driving home a message of pride, unity, and struggle. The Fed also initiated a workshop on current labor issues for K-12 teachers. Combining entertainment, community outreach, and political education, the Fed sponsored the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s “Steeltown” at the Civic Center.
David also expanded existing programs. New community service projects included both a short-lived discount program for unemployed workers and the Unemployment Appeals Clinic that continues today. Changes in political action were more gradual. While serious member-to-member outreach was more than a decade away, the Fed stepped up efforts to inform members about endorsements. Targeted calls to union members in outlying parts of newcomer Russ Feingold’s State Senate district helped him squeak out a victory in his first race.
Community outreach, including coalition-building with social justice groups, was an important part of the changes at the Fed. David used positions on boards and commissions to push a labor agenda. In May, 1982, the Fed and community groups held a Solidarity Rally for Jobs, Justice, and Peace at the Capitol. This event, which attracted a crowd of 1,500, showcased the Fed’s new orientation. Community groups, including peace and international solidarity groups, were invited to set up information tables on Labor Day. The UC Appeals Clinic was a joint effort of the Fed, the National Lawyers Guild, and United Way; and the Tenant Resource Center co-sponsored “Steeltown.” Such alliances would have been unimaginable before 1982.
Improving communications was a priority. To build public awareness of labor issues, David reached out to the media. Revitalizing Union Labor News was a Rump Group goal. This process had already begun when Marv hired MNI striker Bill Christofferson as managing editor, but the newspaper got better and developed a sharper edge as David loosened restraints.
Reviving the Fed required diplomacy and bridge-building. For years, David had sought to build good relations with all sectors of the labor movement. Still, many were skeptical of the Fed’s new direction, and there were reports that some Building Trades locals were considering pulling out. This threat faded quickly, but David continued to pay close attention to the Trades’ concerns. The Fed’s support for Trades’ locals facing attacks by contractors using the unionbusting Melli law firm had an important impact on the Fed’s dynamics. Bridge-building wasn’t limited to the Trades. Until 1986, the Fed’s Executive Board was dominated by backers of the former leadership. Although the board didn’t block initiatives, David had to spend time negotiating with and reassuring some of the more conservative members.
During the 1980s, foreign policy was controversial within the labor movement. The national AFL-CIO enthusiastically supported Cold War policies that many unionists opposed. The AFL-CIO was not happy when David joined a Wisconsin fact-finding trip to Nicaragua, which was under attack from the Reagan-backed contras. Fed delegates passed motions that urged the AFL-CIO to oppose Reagan’s foreign policy and informed our Congressional delegation of our position. While some delegates considered these concerns none of the Fed’s business and criticized David for not muzzling the motions, a majority thought peace and international solidarity issues were part of labor’s political and economic agenda and that we should challenge policies that we opposed.
‘Old Hard Heads’ Won Over
Under David’s leadership, the Fed began an exciting project to recreate itself as a part of a solidarity-based social justice movement. New programs changed the Fed’s culture and affiliates’ expectations of what the Fed should do. These shifts laid the foundation for the expanded programs, increased involvement, and significant gains in mobilization capacity that have occurred since 1986.
When David was elected State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer in 1986, he was surprised to receive a note from Babe Rohr praising the Fed’s accomplishments under David’s leadership. According to the retired Painters Local 802 business agent, the new approach had “changed many views and objectives that ‘old hard heads’ like myself never would [expect].” Considering Babe’s angry response to the Rump Group challenge, that was high praise indeed.
About the Author
Like Newby, Dexter Arnold was a member of the TAA-AFT Local 3220, where he chaired the grievance committee and was vice president of the local during the 1980 strike. A Fed delegate for 18 years, he also was SCFL’s assistant to the president and managing editor of Union Labor News. After working for the New Hampshire AFL-CIO for 10 years, he now teaches labor studies part-time on-line for the University of Illinois. “While in Madison, I thought that the rest of the labor movement could learn a lot from what the Fed was doing,” he says. “My experiences since then have made that clearer than ever.”