Editor’s Note: This essay recounts an early 1990s strike at a bingo hall in Allentown, PA, led by the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World. It originally appeared in John Silvano’s book Nothing in Common: An Oral History of IWW Strikes, 1971-1992.
by Lenny Flank
The whole thing started in June of 1992. Jeff Kelly just happened to be driving down the road one day and he saw a group of people standing in front of this bingo hall with picket signs. As Lehigh Valley Wobs, we have a standing policy that whenever we see picket lines, we always stop and ask what’s going on. So, he pulled over and asked what was happening.
It turned out that a group of bingo workers were upset about the working rules they had in the bingo hall. The issue they were most concerned about was that literally every day they came into work there would be different work rules. People would be punished for rules that didn’t exist until they were punished for them. The bingo hall was operated at the time by a guy who brought his wife in as the new supervisor. She changed all the work rules because she was trying to force people out and hire her relatives instead. So, one of the workers happened to have been fired and that was the spark that set it off. The rest of the workers, there were ten of them all together, walked off the job, picked up signs, and started picketing. Their hope was that they would force the boss into the hiring this person. Instead, the boss fired all ten of them right there on the picket line. So, when Jeff heard the story, they asked him if there was anything he could do to help. They had talked to the Teamsters about three months before and were shot down. Most AFL/CIO unions have a policy, either unwritten or not, that they don’t attempt to organize any company with less than 50 employees. So, Jeff told them that we might be able to help. He went home and called me and Faramarz Farbod. We met in a bar and sat down and decided this was a fight that we probably had the resources to go ahead with.
The NLRB gets involved
The next day we showed up on the picket line. We told them that we could file charges on their behalf with the National Labor Relations Board. We had no idea how long that was going to take, but we thought they had a pretty good chance of winning it. So it snowballed from there. After about a week all ten of them had signed union cards. In July we sent a letter to the bingo hall owners saying look, you can’t fire these people, it’s illegal. We want you to take them back on the job. They are represented by a union and we want to talk about a contract. Of course, we never got an answer so we went ahead and filed charges.
By October we got the decision from the NLRB that they had issued a merit finding and they ordered the bingo hall to rehire all ten of the employees. The bingo hall rehired them and fired them again within 24 hours. At that point we filed more charges and then from there things got crazy. We picketed every day for about three months.
We discussed civil disobedience, but ultimately decided against it because it would have been a tremendous financial strain, we just didn’t have the money to post bail or pay for a lawyer. The police showed up when we first started picketing, they were there every fifteen minutes for the first four days. Remarkably enough, the police were fairly supportive of us because they knew we had the legal right to be there. There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot they could do to stop us. After a while they were getting so annoyed with the bingo owners that they flat out told them not to call them anymore, there was nothing they could do. There were also replacement workers who were relatives of the manager. To their credit, there was actually one or two of them who refused to go in. There were also a lot of customers who refused to go in. Not enough as it turned out, but a lot.
The thrust of our strategy at that point was to try and force a voluntary recognition. What we wanted to do was to hurt the bingo hall so badly that they would give in without having to go to the NLRB. We knew the fed process would be long and drawn out and we didn’t know if these people were willing to hang tough for that long or not. We wanted to try and extract a voluntary recognition, but that ultimately went nowhere because the boss was the biggest asshole I had ever met in my life.
When the NLRB ordered him to rehire everyone and he promptly fired them all again, even the feds were outraged. They are used to dealing with big companies who are at least know the rules. When they break the rules they don’t do it quite so blatantly. They were really pissed off about it, which as it turned out it was a good thing for us because it turned the feds into our allies. That doesn’t happen very often in an IWW strike.
A strike fund?
The other good thing was that by firing the employees, it turned into a lockout, which meant they could collect unemployment.
One of the biggest problems we had at the beginning of this thing was that if the flight went longer than a week, we didn’t have any money to keep this thing going. There was a lot of conflict between us and the IWW general administration over this. The distinct impression I got was that the GA resented giving us money to help these workers out. I kept trying to make these people understand that these workers didn’t have a job. They had rent to pay, bills to pay and food to buy. If we couldn’t keep them out they were going to go back. We didn’t have any choice in the matter. At the time we were putting out a newsletter and every month we had an appeal for funds. We actually raised about a thousand dollars, but it was not enough. We just couldn’t raise enough on our own, so we had no choice but to go to the GA and they did not like it. In the end, the good thing about the Lehigh Valley branch is that we have connections all over the country, good working relations with a lot of other branches. Our fellow workers in Philadelphia, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco went to bat for us. Without those folks we probably would not have got a nickel. So the most fortunate thing for us was that the federal government was providing the strike fund. All these people collected unemployment for 26 weeks. That was the key factor that allowed this to get off the ground.
A contract, and more firings
Ultimately what happened was the NLRB schedule the trial. Fifteen minutes before it was about to start, the bingo hall came in and said they wanted to talk about a settlement. We hashed it out and reached an agreement. The boss agreed to reinstate all ten of the workers, give them part of their back pay, and he agreed to sign a contract with the IWW. We got everything signed, we got the contract, everyone went back to work and then we ran into a problem.
The bingo hall was actually owned by two separate organizations. The supervisor was managing on behalf of both of them. Right after everyone was reinstated under the contract the county government stepped in. They had been investigating this supervisor because he had alleged connections to all kinds of organized crime people in Philadelphia. They basically concluded that he was siphoning off money so they pulled his bingo license. He was actually President of one of the organizations, the Pennsylvania Association of Songwriters, Composers and Lyricists. The other organization is called Allied Air Force. He ran a little museum where they had old airplanes and helicopters. Presumably, they used the bingo hall money to fix up the airplanes. Allied was allowed to keep its license but it had restrictions placed upon it by the District Attorney’s office, the primary of which was that they had to fire the manager, which they did.
The president of Allied Air Force decided that he was going to run the bingo hall himself. This guy had no experience whatsoever, he was an airplane mechanic. He also seemed to have the idea that he was the boss and if there were parts of the contract that he didn’t like, he didn’t have to follow them. So he started violating the contract from the day it was signed. At first we tried to be reasonable with the guy. We sat down and talked to him, but he basically told us to fuck off. At that point we had no other option but to file more charges. We went ahead and did that and right after that our supporters started getting written up for disciplinary measures, then fired one at a time. As each one was fired, we would file more charges. That dragged on for about a year until it was finally scheduled for a trial.
More legal tactics
One of the tactics management used to put pressure on the union was to file a lawsuit against me personally, their reasoning being that it would bankrupt us because we didn’t have money for a lawyer. They thought it would scare me into dropping all of this and that we would just fold up and go away. As it turned out none of that happened. Instead, it presented a great opportunity for us because our lawyer was working for next to nothing and their lawyer wasn’t. Our strategy was to file challenges to everything we could possibly think of. We filed all kinds of motions for discovery, the point being to have their lawyers run up such legal bills that this would be a tremendous cost to Allied Air Force. We hoped that eventually it would get to the point where they just could not afford to drag this thing out anymore, and it turned out that was exactly what happened.
When the NLRB charges were scheduled to go to trial again, about ten minutes before the trial was about to start the lawyer for Allied Air Force came over to me and said he wanted to talk about a settlement. We said the only deal we were interested in was that we weren’t going to ask for anyone to be reinstated because there were no union employees left. What we did want was that people get at least half of the back pay they had coming to them and that they drop the lawsuit against me. We dickered around for a couple of hours, but they basically gave in and signed the agreement.
Our basic problem was that we had no one in the workforce when this whole thing started. The only option we had was to get our people back in the workforce. Once it became clear that we were not going to get voluntary recognition and he was not going to reinstate these people, the only other option was to go to the feds. If it had been our choice, we would not have taken that option because we knew what the probable outcome would be, which was exactly what happened. It took so long and dragged out so far that by the time we got the rulings in our favor nobody cared. Everyone had found jobs someplace else, there was no one left to go back. That’s why we don’t have a job shop there now, because it took two years to get everyone back.
Lenny is a longtime labor organizer and environmental, social, and antiwar activist. He was a founder of the Lehigh Valley IWW in the early 1990s. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org