Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Abandon the Team Concept.

I was having a chat with a worker the other day and he was complaining to me about the trade Union leadership and how rotten they are. “They’re corrupt”, he said, “In bed with the boss, the 1%”.  Some workers are so disgusted with the heads of organized Labor that they believe that Mafia control is at the root of the problem.  Their salaries, lifestyles and other such perks are often given as the reasons for why they refuse to fight.   Then there is the simplest of all the explanations; “they’re evil”.   This is often the description given by the Labor officials to the GOP candidates for president; they’re simply “evil”.

While the behavior of the trade Union leadership can be attributed in part to their obscene salaries and lifestyles that put them in a different world than the members they are supposed to represent; these are not the crux of the matter.  And as far as “evil” goes; what the hell does that mean?

When I mentioned to this worker that it was their support of the Team Concept that was at the root of their collaboration with the employers, he didn’t know what I was referring to.  Even many genuine rank and file activists in the workplace, or to use a better expression, where the “rubber meets the road” are not familiar with this term although they are well aware of its ramifications.

The Team Concept is the idea that the capitalist class, or bosses---those that buy Labor power (hire workers) and those that sell their Labor power to a particular employer (workers who sell our life activity over a period of time for a price or wages) have the same economic interests.  This would contradict the view that the relationship between bosses and workers is inherently an exploitive one which is something almost all workers understand in our gut.  This is not to say there aren’t individual employers that are decent within this system of exploitation or that some workers don’t justify their bosses’ right to their role in society for various reasons.  This is natural given the propaganda dished out through the capitalist media.  Slaves justified slavery and peasants believed in the rights of the feudal Lords at times.  The Royal Prerogative and the Divine Right of Kings was not something to be taken lightly. The capitalist class own the means of production as well as the means of producing the dominant ideas in society so it’s only natural we have in our consciousness views that are against our own self interest. But in the last analysis, ideas have a material base.

These policies from the Labor leadership at the highest levels stem from this worldview; that bosses and workers are on the same team. We are told that in order to keep a job and an income we must help our individual employer compete in the marketplace, we must help them in their life and death struggle to win market share from their rivals whether they are in the same state or province, the same country or throughout the world. Capitalism is a competitive system and we must help our boss compete. We hear this all the time from Labor officials backed up by their friends in academia.

Unionized workers in the retail industry are too expensive, have too many workplace rules and protections that make them uncompetitive compared to the non-Union stores they are told.  The answer to this of course would be to organize the non-Union stores and wage a generalized struggle against the retail bosses for higher wages, better conditions more jobs etc. etc. But how can that be done if you start from a position that the boss’s and our economic interests are inextricably linked?  It can’t, and instead, the Labor officialdom offers concessions to the boss to help them out. The members naturally reject this and from this dynamic arises the suppression of democratic rights, the strengthening of a bureaucracy and the efforts to crush any movement from below that threatens this world-view.

I was a member and rank and file activist in AFSCME for many years. The Team Concept was known in our Union as “Competitive Bidding”. We were always in a struggle with our employer over the contracting out of our work.  The building trades Union officials would always be competing for this work and a political struggle would ensue within the elected board of directors of the water district where I worked as the competition between public and private sector Unions heated up. The building trades officials in unity with the developers and contractors would be vying for contracts and we would be trying to keep work in house.

Competitive Bidding meant that we in the public sector put forward a bid for work that would undercut the private sector. In other words, we were thrown in to competition with these brothers and sisters showing that we could do the work more efficiently and at a lower cost. AFSCME in its internal bulleting, “What’s Your Bid” (1) which was a self -described guide to “public private competition”, informed us that AFSCME didn’t “endorse” competitive bidding and was even so bold to warn us that the “process is rarely unbiased” but that when the “only other alternative is certain job loss” and “When competitive bidding can’t be avoided, the Union should demand that the process be impartial and fair.” The leadership had to say they didn’t endorse it as most workers know that our interests and the bosses are not the same.

In order to ensure our bid was “serious”, in other words, that it would be taken seriously by the boss as a real attempt to cut costs, the best way to prepare it the geniuses atop the international said was for “Labor and management to work together as a team.” Naturally, the workers that were our competition in the private sector were working with their bosses “as a team” in their effort to undercut us.  Any worker knows in our gut that this is a disaster and we cannot build solidarity and a generalized offensive against the bosses in this way.  The heroic figures in the history of our movement built Unions to protect us from competition not help facilitate it.

The insanity of this position from a workers organization is obvious. AFSCME’s position was that “Competition is a two-way street” and that we should even be able to submit bids to win work already performed by outside contractors.  AFSCME ‘s solution if we weren’t able to win the competition for the right to a job was to either to rely on the courts to stop the contracting out of work or negotiate “successorhip clauses” that “obliged” the new bosses to recognize the existing Union and/or contract in the new private company. It’s hard to force the boss to do anything when the position you have from the beginning is a defensive one, a position of damage control.

The same Team Concept was introduced between Kaiser and its Unions.  In the late 1990’s John Sweeney, who was then head of the SEIU contacted Kaiser CEO David Lawrence offering to build a partnership between Kaiser management and the Unions to “rebuild the atmosphere of trust” that apparently existed at one time. Naturally, the existence of this atmosphere of trust is unknown to many Kaiser workers on the shop floor. According to Sweeney, the boss wasn’t too responsive.  But Sweeney tried again after he was elected president of the AFL-CIO and Kaiser management saw a real opportunity and “responded positively” says Sweeney.

The result of this love fest between the head of the AFL-CIO and the head of Kaiser was a proposal for a Labor/management partnership that the Kaiser workers’ had to vote on. A glossy brochure produced by the AFL-CIO industrial department that included an appeal for a yes vote from Sweeney was sent to every Union member. (2) This “unique” historical proposal would give the workers a “real voice in the decisions being made” the brochure claimed and will help Kaiser workers, ”compete as a union endorsed health plan workers and their families can depend on.”

I remember talking to some workers at Kaiser at this was going on and they were not pleased, they did not think that management was on their side as the Union hierarchy was claiming.  So the brochure from the AFL-CIO which included a letter appealing for a yes vote from Sweeney himself had to convince workers to vote against their own class interests, had to vote against their gut feelings.  If the workers didn’t vote yes, what would be “The worst that could happen?”  the brochure asks the members. This communication from the leadership of the national organization of the working class in the US supported by the leadership of the AFL-CIO Unions at Kaiser (to the best of my recollection CNA opposed it which led to SEIU 250 telling its members to cross CNA picket lines at one point) answers its own question:

“The worst that could happen?  The worst that could happen would be for us not to give this ambitious and groundbreaking partnership a try, because things are bad and getting worse.”

Well there you have it.  The position of the AFSCME leadership to its members is that they are not officially for competition because there’s no such thing as a fair competition in this instance but have to engage in it when there’s no other alternative to job losses The SEIU leadership tells it’s members that they should go against their class instincts and join a partnership with the boss because the alternative is that things will only get worse. Naturally, in any struggle there are times due to the balance of class forces when we are forced to retreat and regroup to fight again which means we may accept a concession.  But we do not start from this position, that job losses are inevitable or that the worst is assured. We would only start from that position if we felt struggle was pointless as change is impossible which is exactly what the Union hierarchy believes and the predominant reason for their capitulation form the off.

In all these cases there is never another alternative.  How can you have an alternative when the only direction you can go is backwards? Rather than mobilize the potential power of their members and the working class as a whole in a generalized struggle against concessions, for a shorter workweek, more jobs, independent political action etc. etc. It’s, rely on the courts and if that doesn’t work undermine your potential allies by competing with them for who can win the bosses' favor.

This scenario is played out throughout Labor management relations and has brought us to the present situation where US unionized workers are among the most exploited and low paid in the industrialized world.  Sure you can out produce workers in other countries when you spend two months more a year at work than they do.

It is their world-view, their acceptance of capitalism and worship of the market that is at the root of this problem and why the present leaders refuse to fight.  The building of genuine militant rank and file opposition caucuses within organized Labor based on a program aimed at driving back this offensive of capital and rejecting the so-called realism of the market is what is necessary to change this situation.

But no individual activists or reform group can reverse this situation if they do not openly and aggressively condemn and campaign against the Team Concept and the idea that the boss is our friend.  No matter what such a group claims to stand for, without openly rejecting this philosophy of the employers they will carry out the same policies and bureaucratic maneuvers as the leaders they claim to oppose. We would do well to heed the advice of some of the heroic figures in US working class history when they warned us that:

"Brethren we conjure you...not to believe a word of what is being said about your interests and those of your employers being the same. Your interests and theirs are in a nature of things, hostile and irreconcilable.  Then do not look to them for relief...Our salvation must, through the blessing of God, come from ourselves.  It is useless to expect it from those whom our labors enrich." (3)

(1) What’s Your Bid? AFSCME’s Guide To Public-Private Competition
(2) Quality Care Quality Jobs A National Partnership AFL-CIO Industrial Dept. Kaiser Coordinating Committee
(3) 1840's appeal from New England laborers to their fellows to abandon the idea that the employers/capitalists would solve working people's problems.  Philip Foner History of the Labor Movement Vol. 1 p192

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