Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Don't be fooled: it's not public sector pensions or health care that's the problem

by Richard Mellor

Back in the mid 1980's I recall a protest in Pittsburg PA I believe it was.  The city had decided to have a new hotel built with non-Union Labor.  In response, about 50,000 building trades workers amassed downtown.  The city powers reversed their decision.  I remember a police official being interviewed and he admitted that the assembly violated the law but asked what could he do, throw 50,000 people in jail?

I had a similar experience on a smaller scale during our contract talks in 1997.  Our bosses had kept us pinned at the table arguing about our Cost of Living (COLA) clause in particular.  They brought all sorts of evidence and examples of how low inflation was and that it was never returning and even that the head of our international Union AFSCME, claimed that such clauses were unnecessary in these times.  We wouldn't give it up, a wage increase below inflation was a pay cut we argued and made an issue of it with our membership.  The bosses wouldn't budge.  Working for a public utility, they cared little about paying for all the meeting times, they would wear us down. But we never believed that victories were won through glib talk at the negotiating table---our power lay in our membership and their conscious involvement in the process.

The white collar workers were in another AFSCME local and we negotiated separately to the employers delight, talking with their leadership one day and us the next.  The leadership of the white collar Union always rejected our calls for joint  membership meetings and joint negotiations claiming their members were too backward, conservative, "spineless" one of them told us. At one point when it was tactically correct to do so, we forced a vote on it from their membership and the truth was revealed; their members voted for such meetings and these leaders all voted against them.

We ended up with with a joint strike committee meeting that close to a hundred people came to, janitors, painters, plumbers and water plant operators from our local, clerks, engineers, secretaries , buyers, from the white collar.  There were shop stewards, people I'd never seen before.  We had organized joint meetings in the past in spite of opposition from the leaders of the white collar Union and our own members at times who were influenced by local leaders, paid staff from our regional council and the international Union and the bosses who all sought to foster division between us, the blue collar against the white, men against women.  More women were in the whiet collar local.

In the next meeting with the bosses after these events the effect was stunning.  The concessions disappeared and about $1,000,000 in various forms fell in to our laps.  Management was suddenly quite generous.  Seeing this unity between the two groups brought concessions that months and months of talk at the negotiating table could not. No lawyers were needed, no glib tongues. "Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table."  said George Schultz, the US politician and economist.  Sometimes we can learn from our enemies.  * (See below)

What made me think about this bit of personal history is the situation right now with all the attacks on social services and those workers that provide them. US cities are declaring bankruptcy because these municipalities are broke.  We blogged on the situation in Scranton where the mayor cut city workers' pay to the minimum wage and the response from the heads of the Unions was to file a lawsuit.  This is the extent of their offensive arsenal.  The Wall Street Journal today reports that a promise of state aid has allowed the mayor to reverse that decision and the workers will receive their regular pay and be reimbursed with 6% interest.

In return for the state aid, or taxpayer funded (temporary) rescue, the council and state officials are about to agree on a new rescue plan which would raise Scranton's property taxes 33% over the next three years, "bringing the median property-tax bill to $470 from $353" says the WSJ.  And that is just for this year. In all these cases, it is public funds that come to the rescue in the end.  Both parties agree on one basic thing; workers and the middle class will pay.

This whole scenario, what amounts to terrorism, economic terrorism waged against workers and our communities, has been worked out beforehand.  First, workers are given the shock and awe treatment having their wages cut by 70% in some cases after the city has already slashed employment by 20%.  Union officials whine about how unfair this is and how hard members work and threaten lawsuits.  Then the bosses and their representatives on the city council and other municipal bodies back off and come back with slightly less drastic cuts, outwardly less drastic anyway.

With Scranton, the mayor announces that "I think they should get full wages.  I just literally didn't have the money" he says showing how much he cares.  Then a reminder to the community of why there is no money, why their property taxes have to be increased, "The biggest killer is pension and health care costs" he says.  So the scene is set. Greedy public sector workers, the last bastion of organized Labor in the US, is why your property taxes have to be increased cutting in to your personal income and why social services have to be reduced cutting in to our personal safety and recreation. We reject that society does not have the resources to provide basic things like housing, health care and a retirement that people can live on.

Union officials are skeptical and warn the mayor that if members don't get full pay "..we're going to be right back there file for contempt of court.".  This is why we have lost so much ground over the last 40 years to the point where inequality is greater in the US than in China.  To the Labor officialdom, the Unions are simply employment agencies with them as the CEO's.  They are just "Labor Brokers."  Despite having the potential power to bring the US economy to a halt, they play this game with the 1% every time.  For them, their members are a source of funds and free Labor for the Democratic Party at election time.

In the case of Scranton like everywhere else, the leadership of organized Labor will support the property tax increases which divides workers while increasing hostility towards public sector workers for our costly pensions and wages that are bankrupting our communities.  This weakens us overall just like racism and sexism does.  The role played by the Labor officialdom has also delayed the rise of a powerful and united direct action movement that can turn this tide.   The alternative of course would be to fight for jobs and pensions for everyone building a movement to make the rich pay for this crisis; the money is there as we have explained in numerous commentaries. To challenge the market and its adherents, which means actually fighting back,  can only lead to chaos for the Labor heads, and they will not take this path voluntarily.  It is for this reason that the Occupy Movement and movements like it that will develop in the period ahead, are somewhat messy, confused and at times counterproductive despite the intentions or integrity of many of the players.

My experience as a member and local leader in a small blue collar Union that was very democratic with a history of militancy dating back to the 1960's taught me who my friends are, where my power lies and it is not in the courts or the Democratic Party but in the growth of organized workers on the job, in our communities and in the political arena independent of the two capitalist parties.

Some examples of what Union leaders, politicians, and activists who claim to have workers' interests at heart could campaign for and organize around:

No bailouts for bankers---take back our money
Make the 1% pay--no tax increases for workers or the middle class--tax commercial property not community businesses
Tax all trades on the stock exchanges
End all foreign wars
Federally funded education at all levels--immediate hiring of one million teachers
Health care for all at point of need
Expand and increase state pensions to all workers--lower retirement age to 50
Increase spending on mass transit and infrastructure
For a $15 an hour minimum wage or $5 an hour wage increase whichever is greater
For a 5-day 30 hour workweek
Build an independent non wall street political party based in workers' organizations and our communities
Take under public ownership the banks and finance houses (provide cheap credit to community business) and allocate capital for social need not to bail out the banksters.

As we read this let's remember:
(1) Six members of the Walton family (Wal-Mart heirs) have more wealth than 90 million Americans
(2) The super rich have between 21 and 32 trillion dollars stashed away in offshore secret accounts.

* After this negotiations we wrote an assessment of it.  For any co-workers (or anyone else) that wants to read it we have created a page at the top of this site and added it.

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