Wednesday, January 4, 2012

American Licorice workers enter fifth week on strike

Strikes today are not intended to stop production
I78 workers at the American Licorice factory in Union City California have been on strike since December the fifth. The workers are members of Bakers local 125 AFL-CIO.
I was on the picket lines a couple of days this week and talked to some of the strikers.  The major issue is their health benefits, many of the workers are long-time employees; some of them have over 30 years with the company.  American Licorice bosses have hired scabs to replace the strikers.

The strikers picket 24/7 but as is normally the case, the leadership of the Union tells the members very little.  Most are not sure what is actually going on and what the future holds and the picket lines, like most picket lines these days are not intended to stop scabs or trucks form delivering material.  Coupled with this, the local police have been very aggressive, ticketing drivers that drive by and honk their horns.  The strikers were told they had to remove any signs that ask drivers to honk in support.  Despite this, the workers are solid but five weeks simply standing on a sidewalk in what amounts to a 24-hour rally will eventually begin to drive the best of us to despair.

Some of the workers I spoke to today were very concerned as they had heard that the bosses were going to make the scabs permanent if they didn’t return to work.  One of them told me he had called one of his top officials who told him that they had filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim and that the bosses could not fire him because, they can’t with the ULP filed, “the government will protect him”.

"Do you believe the government will protect you?”  I asked.

“No”, he replied emphatically.

“It’s like they don’t know what they’re doing”, another told me referring to the leadership of the local.  Other worker told me that when they asked questions about the ULP at a Union meeting it came out even this had been botched up and that the papers were not filed properly, “We can’t get straight answers from them” said one woman. She told me that she called the international but they don’t even return her calls.  This is standard practice too. The Union officialdom does not like to interact with those folks who pay the dues; they hire underlings to do that.

One worker asked me about why the leadership isn’t doing much.  He told me that some Union people came down a while ago and made some speeches and left.  He was referring to the Central Labor Council heads that appear at these things for a minute or two.  But like 99% of the 100,000 or so workers affiliated to the Central Labor Council through their Unions, most of these brothers and sisters had no idea what that body was, or had even heard of it. Why would they? It plays no significant role in their lives and their existence on the job.

The secretary-treasurer of the Central Labor Council, Josie Camacho turned up on December 21st with the usual rhetoric, “We really want to see American Licorice continue to thrive,” she told the workers. “The best way to do that is to get back to the table.”

You notice that it is to the bosses that she addresses her remarks ensuring that she wants the company to “thrive”.  So do the bosses and to do that they have to compete in the marketplace and need concessions from their workers to do that effectively. Like a good top Labor official she brought along a representative from her friends in the Democratic Party, Mona Barra-Gibson, a spokesperson for CA Senator Senator Ellen Corbett, and there was more phony rhetoric from this one, “We’re here to stand with you and the rights you have as workers,” she said “We’re asking that you get the healthcare that you deserve.” I’m sure that terrified the American Licorice bosses.  Unfortunately not, they have learned through many years of experience that the Union leaders at the highest levels are on their team.

That’s the extent of the Central Labor Council leaderships efforts at mobilizing support, bringing a couple of democrats to the picket line in a period where the bosses are waging a most serious offensive against workers, our wages, benefits and conditions.  I explained to one striker what the Team Concept is, that workers and bosses have the same interests and that this is the dominant philosophy of the Labor hierarchy.  This is why they support concessions (not for them of course).  This is why there are no demands for higher wages or better conditions on the table as in all strikes these days the Labor leadership’s view is they have to help the boss compete and make profits.

Also, in these struggles there are two possible approaches, one is to rely on the courts and friendly politicians and the other is to mobilize the power of all workers, other unionized workers, non Union workers and our communities and bring enough people to shut down production at that plant. Of course to do that would mean going on the offensive and making demands like higher wages, more jobs, shorter workweek, more benefits etc.  No one disagreed when I said that Occupy Oakland had shown that if you turn out enough people then it becomes harder for them to arrest us, harder for them to break us up.

The strikers have appealed to Occupy Oakland for help and OO is discussing it.  After today’s picket line there was a Union meeting and pretty much all the strikers went to it. I went to it along with some others from Occupy Oakland but we were not allowed in. An OO activist who stayed told me that they voted to continue the strike and they are asking for people to come support the picket lines, these are picket lines that do not impede the scabs or stop deliveries.  Even if people were willing to do that they don’t have the numbers.  No Union local can win alone these days.

What the Union leadership wants is to try to maintain morale until a ruling is made by the NLRB or a deal is cut at the table, most likely if the norm is anything to go by, it will be a slightly less offensive deal than the bosses began with. It’s hard to say though as the bosses are so confident that the Union leadership will not wage an offensive of their own that they might just go all out and replace the present labor force. The other possibility is as many of the workers are long-term employees, they’ll make a deal that will split them along age lines or get people to retire.  The plant plans to reduce the workforce anyway.

I do not think that folks from Occupy Oakland going down to the picket line and blocking the gates is the correct approach.  The Union officialdom tells the strikers that as long as they don’t do it they’re not breaking the law so it’s acceptable to them; it gets them off the hook.  “We can’t stop the scabs because we’d be breaking the law and the company would sue the Union,” the workers are being told by officials.

If that’s the case-------we might as well just give up completely. It’s like a boxer saying that he’d better not hit his opponent otherwise he might hit him back.

Attempting to stop the scabs as the workers passively watch is Occupy Oakland simply substituting itself for the conscious involvement of the rank and file.  It’s what the bureaucracy does really but on another level. Their method is "pay your dues, go home and leave it to us."  Increasingly, leaving it to them of course means the bosses’ get what they want---the present period allows no room for maneuver which is why the officialdom is more openly collaborating with the employers.

Instead, any outside grouping like OO would do best by helping the rank and file build opposition caucuses within their Locals to wage an open struggle against the concessionary policies of our leaders around clear demands for the movement and our class as a whole. We can help the rank and file fight on the job and in the Union, that is what will strengthen the Unions and the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland has had some great successes; no one can deny this.  But rather than substitute itself for the working class, both organized and unorganized, it has to sink roots in to the class and draw it in to the ranks of the Occupy Oakland/Wall Street movement. It has to bring the rest of the 99% in to the battle.

I had suggested to a couple of workers that at their meeting this afternoon they could make a motion that their local officially call on the Labor Council to mobilize mass pickets in support to shut down production at American Licorice if that is what they as a group want.  The Council would have to respond to an “official” request and would most likely find some way to not do it. Rank and file members of the local with the help of the Occupy Oakland Labor outreach committee should lobby the council to do this and Occupy Oakland should offer to jointly mass picket with the intention of shutting production at this plant. Attempts to bring the community in to the struggle is also necessary but as always, something has to be on the table other than a damage control strategy..

I am not questioning the intentions of many of the Occupy Oakland activists but substituting their action for workers inaction is not a good step. If the Labor Council refused to comply with the local’s request assuming it passed, the struggle itself will help the best workers learn and see that they can fight back against their own leaders pro-management policies and it will draw them closer to Occupy Oakland and the Occupy movement. Then perhaps a genuine rank and file/Occupy picket line could be built, even so, this is not the first or last battle we have faced. But Occupy Oakland is spread pretty thin as it is involved in organizing support for the ILWU in Longview Washington.  A weakness in this movement is not having a systematic approach to organizing among the remainder of the 99%, rejecting political action in favor of direct action only and refusing to build a permanent structure based around a clear set of demands that can draw this 99% in to the movement.

The most important thing is that workers are not left as passive spectators.  It is clear already that many rank and file Union members see the flaws in their leadership but the traditions of internal political struggle have been buried. It is these militant traditions we have to revive.

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