Friday, July 15, 2016

The Life of a Texas Labor Activist: Making the Fight Count

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." - Abraham Lincoln, First Annual Message to Congress (December 3, 1861)

This is the transcript of Kent Allen Halliburton interviewing Labor Activist Dr. Gene Lantz on Monday, March 26, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

Interviewer: Kent Allen Halliburton

Interviewee: Dr. Gene Lantz

Begin Transcript

KAH: Hello. My name is Kent Allen Halliburton. I am meeting with Dr. Gene Lantz. He is a retired worker with the United Aerospace Workers. I am going to interview him on himself and his history with the labor movement. This is for a project at the University of Texas at Arlington in their Graduate History Department Oral History Course. I am working under the direction of Dr. Charlton. How are you doing, Gene?

GL: Pretty Good. Thank you.

KAH: Good. Would you like to start off with a brief bio of yourself?

GL: Well, I came to the labor movement fairly late in life because I had been a clerical worker. I had a degree in economics and then with a minor in accounting, I ended up with a job in accounting. Then I decided to become a school teacher and worked in education for ten years. Then, later on, I decided that the working class was where I wanted to be, and I got a job with the United Auto Workers, it did not last very long, later on with the steel workers, and then back to the auto workers. So, in 1979, I got the job that I stayed with until I retired in 2002.

KAH: So, it was the auto workers, not the aerospace workers?

GL: Well, it was the auto workers union, but the long name of the auto workers union is United Auto, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers.

KAH: Oh, Ok.

GL: So, I was an aerospace worker, and in fact, I was a machinist, but I was not in the machinist union, I was in the UAW.

KAH: Ok.

GL: Building parts for airplanes, and I did that until 2002, out at what they still call the Old LTV Plant, although it has changed names several times, and is now the Triumph Aero-Structures Plant.

KAH: Ok. Where do you hail from originally, where were you born?

GL: I am from Ada, Oklahoma.

KAH: Ada, Oklahoma? Where’s that in Oklahoma? 

GL: It's northeast of Ardmore and southeast of Oklahoma City. Yeah, my folks were oil people and prior to going into the military, I worked in the oil fields, but that was all non union. It was really hard labor, but there was not much labor history to it. In fact, that is one of my ambitions, to try and find out more about organizing the oil fields because I know the Industrial Workers of the World tried it, and I know there was some success in California back in fifties and sixties But, I never saw any of it here in Texas. I never saw production oil field workers that were organized.

KAH: What branch of the military did you serve in?

GL: Navy, I was a radioman.

KAH: For how long?

GL: Four years, four miserable years.

KAH: Didn’t like it to much?

GL: No, I did not like it from the first day right up to the last day. I try to convince everybody not to go, but during the last time I got in the Autoworkers, which was in 1978, I was, of course, very proud to be UAW member. Cause I knew something of their history. I’ve done some reading about them in the early days of the CIO and the UAW’s role in it, and the fact that the UAW had a much better civil rights record than most of the big unions, and then more than just about any union. So, I considered the United Auto Workers to be a very progressive union, and I got interested in their history and started looking for books on it. And started to try and get some interest in the union about it, but without much luck. Most union members do not know much labor history, and do not care to. They have quite a bit to do just trying to settle their grievances that go along and service their members. So, some of them would be quite surprised if they knew more about their labor history. But, I got very involved in it and started studying.

One of the things that inspired me was the local labor history here. This picture that I am showing you here is from the cemetery at La Reunion, which was in the 1850s settled as a Socialist Utopian Community. Near here, we're not quite on their land, but we're quite near it as we speak, here in my house. And that particular historical marker that you’re looking at comes from their headquarters site. Fish Trap Lake here in Dallas, down on Singleton St., that’s where the graveyards of the Swiss, French, and European Socialists are, where they buried their dead, during those days in 1850. There were a number of socialist communities throughout Texas, particularly around Fredericksburg. A lot of them were Germans, and they were free thinkers and early socialists, and the official story, I soon found out, is that they were terrible farmers, and that they could not really keep a farm going, so they all went out of business.

But, then I also learned, before long, as I continued my reading that they all went out business on the same day, more or less, in 1860, right after the Confederacy passed a draft law. So, rather than being drafted, some of them tried to escape and got killed, some of them fought against the Confederacy, some of them tried to get to the North to fight. But anyway, all of their communes were broke up and apparently, all in 1860. So, this interested me very much.

I also found a source of labor history that somebody turned me on to. I was at a meeting in Austin, and a guy to told me, “Well, on your way back, stop in Bruceville, and look at the grave of Martin Irons.” The grave of Martin Irons is, in some ways, the very cradle of Texas labor history. Because a Sociology professor from the University of Texas, I believe this was back in the thirties, she stopped at the grave of Martin Irons, and she started digging up history from then on. And for some time, she was the only one that knew anything about Texas labor history. Martin Irons was the, he was a machinist working for the railroad, he was a member of the Knights of Labor, a leader of the Knights of Labor, and he called and led a strike in 1885 against Jay Gould and the railroads and won. And was because of that, the Knights of Labor really took off, and tens of thousands of people began joining the Knights of Labor.

Well, the next year, Jay Gould reneged on the contract and attacked the unions with everything he had. Jay Gould, of course, is most famous for his statement, “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.” And that is what he did in the Great Southwest Railroad Strike. They killed people right in this area. Right here in Lancaster, right near Dallas. And, eventually, Jay Gould won and defeated the Knights of Labor, and that was pretty much the end of their heyday. And Martin Irons, of course, was blacklisted. He could not get a job on the railroad anywhere, and he ended up working at a candy store, for the American Federation of Labor, in Missouri. I guess that was in Jefferson City, wherever their headquarters was. He ran the candy counter and then retired to Bruceville where there was a rich patron who kept him up until he died. Then, he was buried in a pauper’s grave, and when the AF of L in Missouri heard this, and this was in 1910, they sent a delegation down to build a very nice tombstone for him. And that tombstone sits just south of Bruceville, Texas. It’s on the way to Austin from here, and it’s got a very nice inscription on it which you can see in the picture, saying that he was the leader of the Great Southwest Railroad Strike.

Well, the sociology professor found that, and she started digging up Texas labor history, and as far as I know, that is how Texas labor history got started. It is how people began to find out about Texas labor history. She wrote about the Great Southwest Strike, which is not a very good book, in fact, it’s kind of a very bad book, but she also wrote about timber workers allied with the Industrial Workers of the World in East Texas, and what little we know is mostly from what she wrote.

So, those two things interested me a lot, and just from this same stack of pictures that I just dug up, I found one of Eugene Debs. On my webpage, I’ve got a picture of Eugene Debbs visiting people in Hallettsville. Eugene Debbs had a big following. There were a lot of Socialists in Hallettsville back around 1917, and so we made the trip up to Deb’s house, which is still kept on the campus at Terre Haute, Indiana. That was his home town. On the way, this is the same trip, we passed by the miners commemoration in one of the Oklahoma towns, I can’t remember the name of it. And this, of course, another vacation that we took, where we visited the grave of the Ludlow Massacre, the miners at Ludlow who were killed. And this is the grave of Mary Mother Jones, which we also visited. I believe that is in Missouri somewhere.

We dug up some local labor history. This particular thing, what do you call these things that shoot up the soot from the factory?

KAH: Smoke Stacks.

GL: Smoke Stacks. Ok, that smoke stack was at a battery factory here in West Dallas, which it contaminated the whole area around there, and drove down the IQ of all the children by ten points because it was killing everybody with lead poisoning. And there was a big fight to get rid of it and they finally shut it down, and so right before they tore the smoke stack down, I ran out there to get pictures.

KAH: Hmmm.

GL: This is the Haymarket Martyrs again and some more pictures of Debs, and some more pictures of Martin Irons. This is not exactly labor history, but that’s the home of Bonnie Parker in West Dallas. And this is the grave of Clyde Barrow, which is here in Oak Cliff. That’s the smoke stack again. This is Albert Parsons, who lived in Texas and he and Lucy Parsons, that’s his wife, led the Eight Hour Day struggle. That’s the grave of Clyde Barrow. This is Deep Ellum in Dallas, where many labor songs were sung, particularly by Lead Belly and Blind Lemon Jefferson, down in Deep Ellum.

KAH: Blind Lemon Jefferson is from a small town outside of Wortham.

GL: Yeah, Wortham. His grave is there, and it’s clean. I checked.

KAH: Mmm Hmm. I’ve been there.

GL: That’s where the Trail of Tears ended in Tahlequah. I’m part Indian, so I was particularly pleased to see that.

KAH: What tribe?

GL: Cherokee and Chickasaw, not very much, but a little. Nearly everybody from Oklahoma is a little bit Indian. This is the pronouncement at, one that the Haymarket Martyrs, August Spies, made, it’s on their grave. “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” It was his final statement before they hanged him. So, my wife and I have just made it a habit to go around and take pictures and dig up stuff on labor history, and we are particularly interested in Frank Little, who was from Oklahoma. Well, he was not born in Oklahoma, but he lived there.

These old things here are “Vote for Gene Lantz.” This is me running for office in my local union, which is UAW, Local 848. I am very very proud of my union, and I am still very active in it. I am the Chairman of the Retirees. These are newspapers that I have edited.

KAH: And the name of the newspaper is?

GL: The Texas Aerospacer.

KAH: Ok.

GL: I took nearly all these pictures. Although, I had a really good photographer and co-editor for a while, J. Dunn. The photo here is by J. Dunn, and we learned slowly but surely, when we first started working on the newspaper, it was just a stack of loose papers that we more or less arranged the way we wanted them arranged and then we would get the secretary to type them. And we would do just a few things just by handwriting, and we would give it to the secretary. And then they would take it to the printers, and this is when they still had line-o-type in 1984. And so they would set it up with line-o-type, hot type. Then, they would do all the layout and everything else. Well, I was very jealous of that, and I wanted to start taking my own pictures and doing the arrangement myself and everything, so I started using the computer. And started using layout programs. Prior to that time, I had actually done layout the old way with a glass table, you know, and razor blades and little black lines and pressed type that you have to rub out one letter at a time to make a headline.

KAH: So, how long were you the editor of the union paper?

GL: I still am. De facto, I’ve been the editor since 1985, and now this year is 2012. But, I was not officially the editor until 1993. I was a co-editor, prior to that time, but I did all the work. So, these papers are papers that I have worked on and did, one way or the other.

KAH: Ok.

GL: I got fascinated with labor history, and I never thought I would be it. Never thought I would be part of it, but in 1984, something happened that changed my life and really changed my union. I think it changed unionism to a certain extent. Because, from about 1947 to about 1982, unions were sonambulant. They were asleep. They gave up some of their greatest aspirations, like organizing the South. They gave up organizing the South, and gave up organizing black people. They gave up building social security, and that sort of thing, and just started just getting things just for their own members. And because of that, they created a tremendous rift in the working class because even to this day, union members make maybe three and half dollars more than people who do not have a union. And the people that do not have unions know it, and they do not like it. They want to know why everyone cannot have that extra three and half dollars per hour. And, of course the union answer is, “Well, if you want better wages, join the union.” But that is not a very good answer.

Prior to 1947, the CIO really tried to organize everybody. They had very strong organizing departments that buttressed all of the work of the individual unions, and they are the ones that did most of the organizing. Since 1947, they have done very little organizing. The unions grew stronger from 1947 to about 1957, but it was basically just adding members to the unions that had already been created. There was none of the fire of the CIO after 1947. In fact, there was a lot of really bad things that happened within the union movement where unions cannibalized each other.

In 1957, they hit their peak of about thirty-five percent of the work force, and then they began to fall off, but in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the ideology of unionism became much more clear. The idea that unions could get along with companies and that they could get more and more for their members, just by servicing the members and you know, staying out of trouble, was no longer there. When Reagan took over the presidency, he had a strong ugly anti-union program, which he put into effect. And in 1982, when he broke the PATCO union, the Air Traffic Controllers, this picture started getting clear to people, although it took a long time for unionism to change.

This is how it affected me. 1983, there was a scandal over the prices in the aerospace industry. Most contracts in the aerospace industry were what they called ‘cost-plus’ contracts. In other words, the company would bid. They would say, “It’s going to cost us this much to build this airplane so, add ten percent and that will be our profit and that’s how much it’s going to cost you, and then the government would say, “Ok, that’s how much it’s going to be then.” And there was not much bargaining on it, and not a lot of competition. So, the aerospace industry kind of had it made, prior to that time. But, in 1983, there was a big scandal about it. The price of toilet seats was published, and it was like twenty-five dollars for a toilet seat, and there were allen wrenches, which normally cost less than a quarter, and they were paying five bucks for them because the companies were submitting all these high priced costs, so they could add to it and say, “This is our cost plus contract.”

So, cost plus contracts were kind of ended or largely ended around 1983, and the government held a summit with the aerospace companies and told them that we want to see major cuts in your costs. So, the aerospace companies went after their employees with a vengeance. So, in 1984, the LTV Corporation, where I was working, which was a strong corporation making a lot of profits. It was a very profitable corporation with a lot of government contracts and a lot of commercial projects, but they decided that they would cut us. Our contract ran out, I believe, in April or May of 1984, and they decided that they were just going to force us to take major concessions.

Now most of the unions in America went along with that. This was going on all over America, and most of the unions went along with it. They said, “Well okay, I guess we are going to have to take some cuts.” You know there was this big scandal, and also Japanese production was overtaking American production in cars and motorcycles and basically in everything. So, most of the unions decided that they would just take the concessions and tried to beat the Japanese at their own game, you know, in other words, if the Japanese could produce something cheaper, well we would produce it even cheaper than that by taking concessions and taking cuts. And the United Auto Workers was one of the unions that did that. And the United Auto Workers clung to what we used to call the big three automobile companies and took major cuts.

My union, Local 848, for some reason, decided we weren’t going to take it, and we were supposed to have the contract settled. I think this was in May of 1984, and then right after that, we had union elections scheduled. That is the way it had always been because we had always been able to get really good contracts. Everybody got good contracts. From 1947 to 1982 or so, everybody that tried to get a good contract, got a good contract, and they nearly always got a three percent raise every year. And the unions were quite content in that situation.

Well, my local union decided that they would not sign this contract. They would not settle for this contract. So, the company said, “Well go on strike then, and we’ll kill you on the picket line, because you know you do not know how to go on strike, and we know what we are doing and you do not.” So, the union decided we are not going to go on strike, but we are not going to take this contract either. We are just going to work without a contract, and this was heresy at the time. I do not think anybody had been doing that. It is pretty common now, but in 1984, it was practically unheard of. No one even realized that it was a common tactic for the CIO, back in the days of the CIO, and it was called a slowdown back in those days. And when we started doing it though, I don’t think there was even anybody alive that had had that experience and had been through those things, and knew what was going on.

And we had a peculiar leadership, who was actually bucking the United Auto Workers. Guys name was Jerry Tucker, and to this day, you do not generally want to talk much about Jerry Tucker in the United Auto Workers. He was the Assistant Regional Director for Region V of the United Auto Workers, which is this region here. And he told us we could run this working without a contract and that this could be done. We told him, “I don’t think so, we are going to get fired.” And, you know, it kind of went back and forth over whether or not people would get fired.

Our main slogan was, “No Contract, No Overtime,” because the aerospace industry has always run on a lot of overtime. The workers count on it. It is how they build up their salaries. So, we went around yelling, “No Contract, No Overtime!,” and a few of us actually did it. And the six of us, the five of us really, the five of us who did it the most all got fired, on May 21st of 1984. So, after we got fired, everybody else was pretty terrified, but they did have a walkout on the day after we got fired, and I was here in bed. I was in this bed we are sitting on by because I was just sick. It is awful to be fired. It was a terrible thing to be fired, and I, of course, stood up for it. I kind of expected it. Even though some people thought they would never fire any of us, but I thought they would, and I also thought I would be among the first. As it turns out, I think I actually was the first. They tried to fire a guy from third shift, but he did not show up that night, and so I came in on first shift and they took me to Labor Relations and fired me. And there were three other guys waiting in the lobby. They fired them right after me. And then when the other guy came in for third shift, they fired him. So, they fired five of us that day.

The next day there was a big walkout, and the union president called and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I am sleeping.” And he said, “Well, you’re supposed to get your ass down here because we are having a rally, you know we had already worked this out, that if anybody got fired, we were all going to walk out.” So, I went to the union hall and sat up on the podium, or sat on the dais with the other guys who had been fired, while the president talked to the people who had walked out. Well, at that time, we had something like five thousand people working in this plant, and the leadership made a really genuinely strong effort to try to get them to walk out. Leadership actually went walking in to the plant telling everybody, “Ok, walk out, put down your tools, come on, come with us!” They only got, and I counted, they only got about three hundred people.

The union hall was full, so it looked good, but three hundred people out for four or five thousand, is not much, so I realized as we sat there, we were in for a long hard fight. And I had my hand up because I wanted to talk and, of course, they ignored me because back in those days, you know, the union officers talked and really hardly anybody ever said anything. Union meetings were just routine events, you know, and not much ever happened except for people would gripe or bellyache, maybe, but none of us had ever been in a real fight. And so, finally, somebody out in the audience said, “No, look, Gene’s got his hand up.” And so the president turned around and called on me, and that was my first chance to address the union. And I got up and said, I still remember what I said, I said, “I did not lose my job yesterday, I lost in back in April when you lost yours because the only good thing about his job is the union, and if you do not have a union, you do not have a job worth saving. So, stick together, and save the union.” That was my message.

And from then on, for the next thirteen months, I spoke, pretty much, at every meeting, and I attended every meeting. And they let me speak because, you know, I was one of the people fired, and I also recognized how important it was for the fired people to play a role in the struggle. So, I organized the five, well there were six of us at that time, one guy had been fired a month earlier, and we did not realize it, but he was fired for something completely unrelated. But, there were six of us that were out at that time, and so, I organized them. One guy was elected president, I organized the election, and he was elected president. I was elected recording secretary, which was exactly the position I wanted because I wanted to be in a position to organize the firees.

Well, from the fact that we had that walkout, and another subsequent walkout, the company fired another fifty people. I believe that was June 28th or something like that. So, we ended up, when the heads stopped rolling, at sixty-five people fired. We call them the mighty sixty-five, and I was still the organizer of it. And I was able to get thirty to thirty-five people to actually participate. Now, most people when they get fired are so discouraged, they just go off somewhere else. Some of them, of course, would go look for other jobs. Some of them just stayed home and, you know, got divorces and drank, and of course, some of them came around the union hall just to gripe. But, there were thirty or thirty-five of us that were actually working to try to save the union, and we started, on my suggestion, a regular Saturday morning picket line to try to get people to quit working weekends, "no contract no overtime." That was our slogan. It did not really work. The people just went to different gates and went in, and some union officers went in.

So after nine months, the whole winter of ’84-’85, of picketing every Saturday morning, I finally asked if we could just stop because it was too demoralizing. When the recording secretary of the union, the most popular woman in the union, when she walked through our picket line, to work on Saturday, I asked if we could just give it up because, apparently the union officers were not supporting us. By the way, in this whole period, half the union officers quit, the pressure was too much for them. They could not face the company. The president of the union, Carol Butler, was hard pressed to just keep appointing people to go out there and serve as union stewards and to continue to represent the union. He was hard pressed to find anyone that would even do it.

We had to collect our dues by hand because the company cut off our payroll deduction, and that’s the life blood of unions. It has been since 1947. For the company to collect all the dues and just give it to you. So you really do not have to do anything, you just sit there and count your money. When they cut off our dues, in April of 1984, we were lost, and the methods that they used to try and collect dues were just incredibly dumb. By Christmas of 1984, we were down to collections of less than twenty percent of our members, and our members only represented seventy percent of the work force to begin with. So, we went into the struggle with only seventy percent who had signed up. And as a Right to Work state, people do not have to join the union. Thirty percent of them had not joined the union and were still not members.

So, we were in terrible shape collecting less than twenty percent of our seventy percent of our dues. It was so discouraging that in January, right around New Years in 1985, I took off three weeks and went to Nicaragua to pick berries for the Nicaraguan Revolution. But, when I got back, I found that the firees had been put in charge of collection of dues. Well, they were not really in charge of collection; they were in charge of accounting for it, the bookkeeping. And they had this really hilariously terrible, you know, way of accounting. It was a real joke and they could not have possibly kept up with the dues. We had in the plant, and the better workers, the ones that were for the union, were going around inside the plant collecting dues. Now, it was not just being left up to the stewards. And so, a lot of the volunteers were collecting dues. So, the dues were coming in, but they had no way of accounting for them.

So, in about late January of 1985, I brought in the first computer that had ever been used in that union. And it was one of the first computers ever used in any union. It was a Commodore 64, and I wrote a program to account for the dues. So, of course, most people did not know that I had an accounting background and that I could type really fast and that I had already been dealing with these little Commodore 64 computers. So, we developed a way to account for the dues, and the dues kept picking up. And after I got this thing computerized, I was able to tell the leadership a bunch of strategic information that they otherwise would not know. Like, for example, which units were paying their dues, which stewards were doing their jobs, where we were strong and where we were weak, and the effect of having the volunteers collect the dues. And good bookkeeping helps too. Ah, we started getting back up and we started finally, in about May of 1985, we broke fifty percent. We started getting more than fifty percent of our membership to pay their dues, and that was so energizing to the leadership that they decided to call a strike.

So, they called a strike, I believe it was July 1, 1985, and we won the strike in ten hours and got a pretty good contract. We were only out for eleven hours. It was on a Sunday, too. And the contract that we got, there were people that were against it, and those of that had been fired, got screwed. Instead of paying us full back wages, which we were entitled to, they paid us for full back wages, less three months, and so some of the firees were so mad about that that they quit the union. Well, most of the firees and most of the membership were glad to get a contract that would last. The whole thing lasted fifteen months.

During that fifteen months, I was fired for thirteen months, one year, one month, one week, and one day. Then together, and by the way we have a video of this, I believe it was the seventh of July, we all, all the firees, marched back into the plant and resumed our jobs. We went in single file, sixty five, well sixty four of us, single file. One woman quit. Sixty four of us lined up single file and the leadership of the union lead us, one at a time, it took all day, to our respective units and put us back to work. And I had completely forgotten how do anything. I had been out for so long. I never was a very good machinist anyway. They put me to work, and I immediately loaded all of my parts upside down. I do not think that they ever knew that I had done that, but I did. I loaded everything upside down, but we won. We won, and at that time, 1985, there were no victories. There were no unions winning anything. There were no slowdowns. Every strike was defeated, and we would have been defeated if we had gone on strike from the beginning. That is what the company wanted us to do.

So, by that time I had been using a lot of the skills that most union members do not have, primarily typing, making leaflets, bookkeeping, organizing, and so it was easy for me to step into the role of union editor. In fact, before I became editor of the Texas Aerospacer, I started a different paper called the 848 Organizer. And we headed up the Organizing Committee and we went from seventy percent membership up to ninety two percent membership because, prior to that time, we had not even been trying to organize members. And we, the Organizing Committee that did it, angered a lot of members and we angered a lot of the leadership, but by gosh, when we brought the members to the leadership, we brought the total numbers up to like ninety two point something. And by then I was, solidly, the editor of the paper and all that. And they did not need the organizing committee any more. By then, the stewards were doing their job, and so that was my particular contribution to labor history.

And my contribution since then has been, you know, much more minor, but even this year I organized a Song Fest. I have organized two of them and one was last fall and one was about three weeks ago. And I am bringing back music, I am bringing back the singing tradition of the American labor movement. And no one in North Texas has done that in all these many years going back, I am sure, all the way to 1947. So, I am still contributing. I am still adding things. I am now the Chairman of the Retirees in UAW Local 848 and that puts  me on the Executive Board of UAW 848. I am on the Executive Board of the Dallas AFL-CIO, and I recently became president of the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and a member of the Texas AFL-CIO Executive Board. So, those few little talents that I had brought with me into the labor movement, really paid off when the labor movement needed them, which just goes to show that great times make great opportunities. And if it had not been for what happened in the aerospace industry, and if it had not been for this guy named Jerry Tucker, I would still be just making airplane parts and would not have had the opportunities to contribute to the labor movement that I have had. Now is there anything specific?

KAH: You said that you have been the editor of the paper, is there any particular event since then that played a big role that was really interesting, perhaps another strike?

GL: Well, in 1987, the old CIO unions who were bridling under the leadership of Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO, they did not just want to keep doing everything the same way in 1987. So, they started an organization that was kind of an adjunct to the labor movement. It was called Jobs With Justice. My wife and I got interested with Jobs With Justice immediately, and we attended the first Texas event, which was in Nacogdoches. They were trying to organize the cafeteria workers at the college, I believe it’s called Austin College, in Nacogdoches, and we attended that. We organized a bus to go actually, and we started trying to get the national Jobs With Justice to let us start a chapter, and they finally gave in.

In 1989, no it was 1988-89; there was a big Greyhound Bus Drivers strike, and my wife and I both worked, at that time, at LTV. And, we were both members of UAW 848, but we did a lot of solidarity work. Because, coming out of the struggle for 848, a few people had learned the importance of union solidarity. Not a lot, but a few. It was a handful, and we soon found that there were a handful of union members in most of the unions in North Texas that were interested in union solidarity and would actually go out and help. So, when the Greyhound Bus drivers in Downtown Dallas went on their strike in ’88-’89, that winter, we organized rallies every Friday night, and I think that went on for nine months. It went on throughout that winter. We were fortunate to get the help of Teamsters Local 745. They would send thirty or forty people. So, we would end up with a total of seventy to seventy five people rallying Downtown Dallas every Friday night, and some of those rallies got pretty salty, but we were pushing hard for a victory for the Amalgamated Transit Union over Greyhound. And eventually, by the way, they did win. They actually got a court decision a year or so later. It did not look like we were winning because, as far as the strike goes, we did not actually win; the company did not give in, but the company did things that were illegal to break the strike, so eventually, they won because of a court case.

So, anyway, coming out of that, by the time that was over, we knew every activist in North Texas. We knew every union member that would do anything because we had been asking them to do stuff every Friday night. And so, Jobs With Justice gave in and let us form a chapter of Jobs With Justice and that took place in my union hall in early January of 1990. And our first activity was to march in the Martin Luther King parade. So, we started not only reaching out from one union to another but also reaching out to the whole community through Jobs With Justice, starting in 1990 and still to this day. I am still the organizer for Jobs With Justice in North Texas, and I am not going to try to tell you that it is moving mountains or anything, but if you are a union activist in North Texas, you are working with Jobs With Justice, and that is about all there is to it. The actual union leaderships do not usually do that much through their normal union behaviors, but whatever few activists there are will come when Jobs With Justice calls.

So, we contributed that also, and we have done a lot of solidarity work between unions and between unions and community groups and church groups. Jobs With Justice put together a group called The Workers Rights Board, which here in North Texas, it could be anything in other places, but here in North Texas, it is mostly church people. And we were fortunate to find the most progressive church leaders in the area to work with us. People that also, like us, see the importance of workers and how strong workers could be, if we pulled together. So, we did that. We have added the word solidarity to almost everything. I gave you a picture there of me singing Solidarity at the AFL-CIO convention, and I have done that three or four times now. And I have also sang the Star Spangled Banner at the Texas AFL-CIO events. So, bringing back our music tradition and trying to emphasize our culture, trying to emphasize our labor history, and practicing and leading solidarity is what we have done in the past.

What I am focusing on right now is the fight for democracy, the fight to have the right to organize unions, and to have the right to vote, which is under attack in this country at this time. To have the right to peaceful assembly, which is also under attack in this country at this time. And just incidentally, on the topic of labor history, I am writing a dramatization, in which Lucy Parsons comes back to life and explains what happened in the struggle for the eight hour day around May 1 through May 4 of 1886. And Lucy Parsons, and I will appear probably around May 1 of this year. I am hoping it will appear several times because I am going to ask different unions to put us on. And (Ackawete Taemba) is going to going to be Lucy Parsons. I will play the role of the professor. And Lucy Parsons will upstage the professor by telling the real truth about what happened at Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886. And I really love to restore that memory of labor history to the union movement because, frankly, they have forgotten it. They have forgotten their history, they have forgotten their culture, and they have forgotten how to practice solidarity. But it is coming back and it is coming back strong.

In 1995, the AFL-CIO was basically overthrown by the old CIO unions. And since 1995, the AFL-CIO has been way more progressive than most of its constituent unions and far more progressive than most of its constituent union locals, and so the need for Jobs With Justice has diminished because they are doing it now. And now it’s all I can do to just hang on to all of the wonderful things that are happening in the labor movement. And we are no longer any kind of vanguard because the AFL-CIO, the leadership itself, is the vanguard. Richard Trumka is one of the most progressive spokespersons in America today. He is the president of the AFL-CIO. So, I come from a period when the unions did almost nothing to a period when the unions are doing almost everything, and it’s been amazing. If I had only been a passive observer, I would still be amazed, but the fact that I have had a chance to play a tiny role in it is just wonderful. Well, you know, it’s something to proud of and blush about, to feel really wonderful about. Labor history is not just in books, it’s in people.

KAH: Now, since I have known you, I have heard you talk about labor history in Texas. Prior to the modern era, what kind of things can you point out about labor history in Texas that most people might not be aware of just by word of mouth?

GL: Well, there were strikes prior to the Civil War. Texas had a civil rights record and a labor history prior to the Civil War. I think that the first strike in Texas was from the cotton screwmen in Galveston. These were people that packed cotton in the bottoms of the hulls of ships and they struck some time in the 1850s, I think. I discovered that when May Day happened in 1886 that there were actually struggles here in Texas. One of the things that Elaine and I discovered on one of our trips, we went to Colorado to see this monument that I showed you a while ago of the massacre of the miners in Colorado. And while we were there, we studied up and we found out about Thurber, Texas, which was an all union town located about a hundred miles west of Fort Worth, where everybody in town was a member of a union including the delivery boy and everything else. From people sweeping the floors, it was an all union town, and when the coal ran out, or when they quit mining coal, it was because the oil fields started coming in. Thurber dried up and is now a ghost town. But if you go to their graveyard, and I recommend that you do, you will still find graves with the old AFL symbol of a hand shake, in Thurber, Texas.

The Knights of Labor were big in Texas. They had a whole number of chapters in Texas, and of course, the Great Southwest Strike, which was led from Texas. It was originally called in Sherman, Texas, and was what put the Knights of Labor on the map. It is also pretty much what destroyed them, when they lost the following year, but it was the biggest thing that the Knights of Labor ever did and that is Texas. Of course, Lucy Parsons, herself, not only was she a great leader, not only was she from Texas, probably a former slave, not only was she from Texas, but she also led the struggle for the eight hour day, her and her husband. And then after her husband was killed, she continued to be active until 1942, and died in a home accident. But from 1886 to 1942, she was a great powerful leader of the American labor movement, and well known, and she was a Texan.

KAH: Well, what do you know about the Pecan Sheller’s Strike?

GL: The Pecan Sheller’s Strike was led by Communists, mostly from Houston, but the strike itself took place in San Antonio. I’ve met Emma Teneyuka, and I have also met a woman named Manuela Solis. And Manuela says that Teneyuka was not as big a leader of that strike as everybody thinks. She was seventeen years old, she was good looking, and she was a good speaker, a very passionate speaker. And so, she attracted a lot of attention as the leader of the Pecan Sheller’s Strike. When she died, I happened to be in an AFL-CIO meeting that was taking place in Irving, Texas, and Congressman Charlie Gonzales delivered a long obituary for Emma Teneyuka. This was five or ten years ago, and it was great to see. I have a picture of Emma Teneyuka where it says she is in jail for us because she was thrown in jail during the Pecan Sheller’s Strike. The organizers from the Communist Party, were CIO organizers, who organized a lot of stuff here in Texas, and they organized mostly in South Texas. Manuela Solis and her husband were, themselves, responsible for quite a bit of that organizing, and I have a thirty minute tape or so of her talking about their days of organizing, which I have transcribed and given to Dr. George Green, a professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington.

A good friend of mine also made labor history in Texas. Pancho Medrano was a pal of mine, and he was active with Jobs With Justice. He was a charter member of this Jobs With Justice chapter, and it was Pancho who was the lead plaintiff on a law suit that actually ended the union busting career of the Texas Rangers because if you go back just a few years in Texas Ranger history, you find that they were genocidal murderers and also union busters. And they beat up Pancho and a bunch of other people during a Farm Workers action, and this was, I think, around 1962. And so, the ACLU got a hold of it and sued the Texas Rangers. Pancho was the lead plaintiff and they won, and I do believe that ended the union busting career of the Texas Rangers. I do not think that they have been involved in union busting since then, and that was a glorious thing for him to have accomplished. Of course, he did a great many things. He was in Selma and Birmingham, and he was the civil rights representative for the United Auto Workers. He was with Robert Kennedy when he was killed. He was with President…..I am getting old, and I stumble over names. President Johnson was attacked by a mob, he and Lady Bird Johnson were attacked by a mob here in Dallas a little bit before Kennedy was killed here, and Pancho was their body guard. He was one of the people defending them. So, he was in all kinds of wonderful things, and he was a friend of mine. His son was a good friend of mine too, and they are both dead now.

So, I have gotten to see, up close, gigantic changes in the labor movement. Back in Houston, in 1973, I believe it was, there was a little upsurge of activity around the Farm Workers. This was during the Great Boycott and the Safeway Strikes, the Safeway Boycotts, and I marched with the Farm Workers quite a lot. I picketed with them quite a lot, and at that time, they were like a voice from the past. They were like an original CIO union, reaching out to the community and doing things that other unions did not know what to make of, and for that matter, for a while there, they did not even get along with the AFL-CIO and the other unions. And the Teamsters used to beat them up, but they were practicing unionism as America knew in the 1930s, and for a long long time they were the only ones that had. And now when you go to a meeting, everybody gets up and says, “I marched with the Farm Workers.” And now that means something really great, but back in those days it was, you know, frowned upon by most union people. Most union people thought they were crazy or thought they did not belong in the union movement, were not any help, or were not any good.

So, all these martyrs like Cesar Chavez, we love them today, but when they were alive, they had a pretty hard time. We are going to be marching for Cesar Chavez this Saturday, and that is one of the things that Jobs With Justice did. This is a little tiny contribution, by the way, to Texas labor history. In, I believe it was 1999, I believe, the AFL-CIO changed its position on immigration. They had always been in favor of deporting all immigrants, and that was always a major flaw with the AFL, and it was a major flaw with the AFL-CIO. But I believe it was in 1999, actually, they decided that the best thing to do about immigrants was to organize them not deport them, and the flag went up, you know, that it is OK to work with immigrants, and so Jobs With Justice was eager to do that, and we did it right away. And I organized the first Cesar Chavez birthday party here in North Texas, right after the AFL-CIO changed its position. I was pretty proud of that. I still am. So, now we have all these parades and everything, but I did the first one.

KAH: Nice. Now, you have been doing all of this work in Texas for so long, over the time that you have done it, being in the state that you are, a state that has always been a right wing conservative state, have you experienced a lot of anti-union activity?

GL: Well, yeah!

KAH: I mean what kind of instances can you point out where you have seen that kind of stuff happen?

GL: The remarkable thing is how everything has changed. We, for example, when NAFTA began to be a big issue, and I organized activities against NAFTA. In fact, I believe that my union local had the only big union sponsored anti-NAFTA activity, when NAFTA was being passed. That is the North American Free Trade Agreement. Back in those days, mostly people would drive by and shoot the finger at you, you know, or yell at you, “Go back to Russia!,” or something like that. Now, when you are picketing or you are waiving a sign out, people honk their horns and give you the thumbs up sign, and there has been an amazing shift, just in the attitudes of passersby.

There has also been a very very ugly trend in government, well since Reagan was elected. And so, our democratic rights have been threatened, and have been taken away to a large extent. I just read a while ago that that one of the members of the National Labor Relations Board has been funneling information to the Republicans, and specifically, to candidate Mitt Romney. This is information that was protected privileged information, lawyer client information, and doing this in order to help bust the unions. So, there is a viscous attack against our democratic rights, including unionism, but not limited to unionism. They are not just trying to stop unionists, they are trying to stop everybody, trying to stop people of color, try to stop gays, trying to stop women from having their democratic rights. So that they can attack our economic rights and our benefits, which by the way, are going down. So, even though we see on the one hand the government turning against the people in the ugliest nastiest way and we see business turning against the people in the ugliest nastiest way, but we see the people themselves are starting to embrace the struggles and those things.

When we started Jobs With Justice in 1990, around we were considered like outlaws, mavericks or something. Now, I make a regular report at the AFL-CIO meeting every month, and we are patted on the back and complimented and people go to our events. You know, and they are happy to see us. They call us in to consult with them, and none of that was possible just a few years ago. This is, say, twenty years ago, when we were literally outlaws, not only to the public, in general, and certainly to the bosses, but even to the other unions.

KAH: Now, in your time, have you seen events where violence was used in a strong way against the union?

GL: No, not really. I have seen some betrayals, some tricks pulled, some people arrested, some handcuffed and that sort of thing, but no; I have not seen any shooting or anything like that. I saw the police manhandling a few guys, but most of the time they had made some bad tactical mistakes. And that comes right up to today, where even the Occupy forces have a couple of run-ins, you know that they might could have avoided, just tactically, but I have not seen, I have not seen what happened in the thirties, I have not seen young people shot down, I have not seen murders on picket lines, and that sort of thing. I have not seen the kind of blood bath that American labor had to go through to get where they are today. And now, it’s like gravy, you know, if you know what you are doing and you are careful, the possibility of getting hurt on a picket line is almost negligible. We have the lawyers watching over everything we do. In the labor movement and the union movement, when leadership of the union decides to do something, they bring the lawyers. So, they are very very careful.

KAH: Looking at everything that you have been involved with, and looking at the present situation, what is your analysis for the future of the labor movement in Texas and then the United States, in a broader sense?

GL: Have you ever seen that quote from Eugene Debbs? I cannot quote it, but it’s something like, “Ten thousand times has labor fallen, ten thousand times have our banners been knocked down,” and then he says, and it is a pretty long quote, he says at the end, “And yet our eventual triumph is as certain as the rising of the sun.” Yeah, I feel like that. I see on the one hand, really terrible things happening, as we talk the Supreme Court is very likely to overthrow all or parts of our healthcare law, the gains that we made. The pickets that we did two years ago to get healthcare, the work that we did, is very likely to be overthrown by the Supreme Court. At the same time, I see more and more people on our side, you know. People are waking up, people are finding leaders, leaders are getting better than they used to be. There is a recognition of the civil rights movement, the leadership role of the civil rights movement, and the people that have been through those struggles are taking the rightful role and the leadership of the overall struggle.

Even though many people would consider these very very hard times, and they are, with the unemployment very high, with the attacks on our living standards, and the attacks on our democratic rights, it’s perfectly awful, but at the same time, people are responding, and the working class has never been defeated. You know, we have taken some awful lumps, but we have never been defeated, and we never will be. And our final triumph is as certain as the setting of the sun, or the rising of the sun.

KAH: Looking at current movements, what are some of the methods that union workers and working people, in general, can use to further their cause?

GL: Methods. I always say that all methods, all tactics are good, if they are applied at the right time and place. So, but I do not rule out anything. Now, most people would. Most people would say that, “We are not going to do anything that is not peaceful and legal,” and then there are people who do not want to do anything but get arrested. They make a fetish of getting arrested. They say, “If nobody was arrested then it was not really an action.” You know, some people, and I am one of them, often say, “If we do not get on television with that, we really have not done much.” So, even though I organized a very good action last Thursday, and I have another one coming up this Thursday, if we do not get media, then I am very disappointed. But, I believe that all tactics have a place. It is just a matter of time and place. And in this time and place, the best tactics are peaceful, legal and defending our democratic rights, fighting for our democratic rights, and particularly, the right to peaceful assembly, to bring more and more people onto the street. I think that this, worldwide, is going on, some places, many places, are ahead of us. Spain, for example, had an Occupy Movement several months before the United States did. The Greeks have had very strong demonstrations, bordering on riots, and in fact, I think they have even had a few riots.

So, there is an upsurge in involvement, and I would say that that is where we need to be going, in this period and in this time. Now there have been other times in history, where you could not criticize what people did. The Cubans picked up the gun in the 1950s and went to the woods and fought against the army and they succeeded, but I do not think that we are in any kind of a situation like that right now. I think that what lies ahead for Americans, certainly in the immediate future, is just more and more attempts to get more and more people to take action, and by action, I mean everything. I mean voting and picketing and mass demonstrations. I generally oppose activities that limit our participation. I generally opposed people deliberately making fools of themselves in public, creating a spectacle because they want because they are that desperate to get newspaper coverage. And, although I am in favor of newspaper coverage, I also want the newspaper coverage to be such that it invites more participation. And so somebody, for example, takes their clothes off in public or something just to get into the newspaper, I do not think that that is going to lead to more participation. So, I am in favor of tactics that can lead to more participation.

And I do not want to give you the impression that millions of people in North Texas are just dying to get out on the street. I do not think that that is where we are. But, there are more than there used to be. And the response from the passersby, the response from the people, in general, is better than I have ever seen it. And I think that it is going to continue to get better, and I think that those in power, or those trying to be in power are going to get worse. The Republican Party, today for example, is literally getting rid of any kind of moderation that they may have had at one time and going to the far right and getting just nastier and nastier. So, I think that that is going to happen. I think it is a response to the world’s situation that we are in, and I think also that the working class will respond much better than it ever has. There is a poem by Percy Shelly, I cannot remember how it goes completely, but it says, “Wake like lions from slumber,” and it ends by saying, “We are many, they are few.” I keep trying to give you a good ending.

KAH: Oh no, you are fine.

GL: Ok.

KAH: I want us to get us much as possible. There is much for you to say.

GL: Well, do you want to go through some of these newspapers or something? I have covered my whole life story.

KAH: Now, if you were to be in a room with say a hundred workers, right now, and you were talking about voter registration, and you were talking about who they should vote for in the upcoming election, what would you tell them?

GL: I would not be allowed to do that because Jobs With Justice and the Alliance for Retired Americans are both restricted by the government. They cannot endorse candidates.

KAH: If it is just you in the room with a hundred workers, what would you tell them to do, as Gene Lantz? Who would you tell them to vote for.

GL: Who would I tell them to vote for?

KAH: Yes.

GL: Obama, for president?

KAH: Mm Hm.

GL: If it were just me talking as an individual, and I would tell them to get involved in congressional district 33, right now, where there is eleven candidates trying to get in the only new democratic congressional district that Texas has made, the only one that they have made in decades. And the unions have endorsed Mike Vesey, who is a very good candidate from Fort Worth. So I would tell them to do that, in fact, day after tomorrow, I will be going to my union hall, which is having a reception for Mark Vesey.

This is something else that I am very very proud of. Not only is my union doing things like that, but my union is taking leadership. My union raises more money, pound for pound, that just about any aerospace union in America. We raise more money for politics, and we participate directly in politics, and see, we did not used to do that. Prior to 1985, they just serviced their members, and that was about all they did, but now, the president of my union is the president of the Southwestern region of the politics for the UAW. I think that he has a five state region, and he is the president of the region, and as I said, we raise more money, and we participate more directly. We are just about the only union that has a regular newspaper, and we not only have a regular newspaper, we have a pretty good webpage, and we reach out to our members and to the public. My union had a civil rights celebration a month or so ago, with people coming out and telling their civil rights stories and singing their civil rights songs. And my wife and I, at least, revitalized the civil rights movement in my local union in 1985 or ’86. Whereas, they had not had an active civil rights movement in many years before that, and so I am very very proud to be a part of all that. It is amazing that I lived to see it, and to be a part in it is just ecstatic.

KAH: Well, I think we got a lot of good stuff and I think your contribution, the people will find this valuable and that you contributed a great deal to the labor movement in North Texas.

GL: Did I forget to tell you that I built the archives in my union local? I have about twenty five scrapbooks covering the history of my union local from 1943 up until the present, and my wife and I have also contributed many many boxes of labor history from out little vacations that we took. We have contributed them to the archives at the University of Texas at Arlington.

KAH: I think they all know you.

GL: Yeah, they used too. I guess they still do. I do not know.

KAH: I have heard about you from them.

GL: So, we have really had a role in digging up history from around here. I used to, one of the ways that I got involved in history was, I started interviewing the retirees. This is back when I was still working in the plant. I would go to the retiree meetings and interview just whoever was the oldest one. What time did you start? What was going on here? I found a person that was an active unionist in the time of the Pants Strike in Dallas. This I believe was in 1939, Haggar Pants. There was a Haggar Pants plant up by what is now Love Field, and they had a big strike there of textile workers. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union. And so, interviewing people that have actually been in these struggles, you know, is very productive. And so, I used to run a regular series in the paper of people who have been in the union movement for a long time.

In fact, in the current paper that is at the printers right now, there is an interview with a ninety-five year old member of my union, and his dad was in the mineworkers union in Thurber, Texas with, and he has picture of his dad at a meeting which took place in Fort Worth, and one of the people in the picture was the head of the mineworkers union for many many years, what was his name, LJ (Something), not J. Edgar Hoover but, the guy who started the CIO. He is in the picture, and I am really proud of that. So, there is these guys, who may not know that they are walking history, but there is a lot of them, and so I keep on interviewing them, and that has been a minor contribution.

KAH: Nice. Well, is there anything that you wanted to talk about that maybe we did not address?

GL: I think that restoring our proper history, warts and all, would be a wonderful ambition for a young historian or young archivist to have. I think that probably the biggest, in an ideological sense, I think the biggest ideological problem that the American labor movement has today, is not recognizing the horrible set of mistakes that they made between 1947 and 1995. That period needs to be reviewed and needs to be condemned, and they need to say, “We made some mistakes.” And we need to find what was good in the labor movement then and now, and just in an ideological sense, we need to recognize when we erred. So, the fact, if you study labor history, you find these glorious romantic accounts of things that happened until 1947, and they nearly all end in 1947, and then you might see them pick up again in say, 1995 or something, and you started seeing these romantic and wonderful accounts of heroism and good decisions and victories, a few victories, but the period from 1947 to 1995, nobody talks about it. We are ashamed of it. And I think if I were a young historian or archivist, I would want to explore that pretty thoroughly.

KAH: For sure.

GL: Try to set it right.

KAH: What was the date? I did not mention the date when we started the interview. The interview started around, what was it, 6:45, 6:50?

GL: Yes.

KAH: And it is now 8:10. This is Central Standard Time, and it is in the evening on March 26, 2012. We have been speaking with Gene Lantz, of the UAW Local?

GL: 848.

KAH: 848. He is the Chairman of the Retired Workers Committee?

GL: I am the Chairman of the Retirees Club, yeah.

KAH: And my name is Kent Allen Halliburton. We have been doing this for a University of Texas at Arlington Oral History Graduate Level Course Project. It have been a pleasure to interview you, and I will do everything I can to get this transcribed as quickly as possible and get a copy of it to you.

GL: Right on.

KAH: Alright, have a good one.

End Transcript

No comments:

Post a Comment