Sunday, August 19, 2012

Caterpillar workers suffer defeat after three months on strike

We can't win if we don't shut down production
by Richard Mellor

While it is true that the percentage of US workers in Unions has declined considerably over the years it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of these organizations that working people built over almost two centuries. As I always used to say to co-workers, "Merrill Lynch didn't build America, working people did", referring to a once popular ad that the money management company aired for a while.  Merrill Lynch (and others) describes itself as a "Wealth Management" company which is what it is; it manages the wealth that workers create for the benefit of investors and other coupon clippers.

The capitalist class fought the creation of our organizations with mass deportations, terrorism and violence.  Despite the low percentage (about 7%) of Unionized workers, important sectors of the US economy are Unionized and from the 1%'s point of view, there is always the fear that the rank and file of these organizations will overcome the obstacle of our leadership and wage an offensive of our own. The capitalist class fears the return of the methods that built Unions in the first place, the mass pickets, occupations and strikes that are actually aimed at shutting production and keeping scabs out as opposed to being 24-hour protests. They fear the potential for the swelling of organized Labor's dwindling ranks as millions of unorganized workers are driven in to struggle.  The more conscious theoreticians of capital are also well aware that only 10% or so of French workers were organized when the historic 1968 General Strike paralyzed that country as 10 million workers struck and occupied their workplaces.

The end of the three and a half month strike at Caterpillar in Joliet last Friday is another setback in a long list of defeats for organized Labor and US workers in general. "We really got nothing" one 19 year veteran told the Wall Street Journal which follows the general trend in these disputes. On the other hand, Caterpillar which is making lots of money, was very "pleased" with the outcome and the new contract provides workers, "a competitive wage and benefits package" according to a company spokesperson.

In order to be "competitive", a philosophy that the heads of organized Labor subscribe to, workers lost cost of living raises, seniority rights, and will now pay more for their health care and lose their defined-benefit pension plan to a defined contribution 401K plan.  Workers about to retire prior to the Great Recession can tell you how secure 401K plans are.  My friend lost $60,000 of his retirement plan---the "United States of Insecurity". As is normally the case, younger and future workers were sacrificed at the altar of profits. Future hires are an easy mark as they don't vote on contracts so the Union tops who view Unions as employment agencies with themselves as the CEO's give them up willingly. This latest defeat is not due to the lack of willingness to fight and sacrifice on the part of the ranks, but a failure to fight on the part of the leadership.

"Workers hired before 2005 will receive no hourly pay increases, those hired later would receive a one-time 3% pay increase..." the WSJ reports, but any increases after that would be "at the company's determination"; so much for belonging to a Union. The contract vote was fairly close according to workers that the WSJ spoke to as the Union hasn't released the official number, 290 for and 220 against.  A last minute upping of a one time bonus (a bribe to vote yes) from $1,000 to $3,100 is what tipped the scale in favor apparently, "It's pretty hard to turn down but I feel sorry for the younger people trying to make a living" said one worker.

The number of strikes involving 1000 workers or more has declined 50% since the 1990's with 19 in 2011 involving 113,000 workers.  Compare this to 1974 when there were 424 stoppages of 1000 workers or more involving 1,796,000 workers. (BLS). The decline began after the crushing of the PATCO strike by Reagan in 1980 and the defeat of some major strikes in the eighties as the bosses' were given the green light after the Labor leadership's refusal to wage an offensive after PATCO.
2011 though shows a slight rise over the previous few years as there have been some major stoppages at Verizon for example as well as lockouts. American Crystal Sugar workers have been locked out for over a year.  Lockheed Martin also locked out workers, members of the IAM, until a contract that eliminated a defined benefit pension plan was agreed to recently.  IAM leaders, "vowed to press the issue when the four year deal expires" according to the WSJ.  I am sure the bosses are shaking in their boots.

While voting for the Caterpillar contract the worker above said that he "Hated to give up the fight, but I don't think there is anything more to get.".  He's wrong about that of course as there's plenty more to get, but how to get it is the issue.  Some IAM leaders recommended against the 6 year contract deal but what was their alternative?  It's one thing to recommend a no vote on a contract, I was in that position myself, but you have to offer an alternative to yet another 3 months without pay and being permanently replaced at the end of it after you lost your home. Workers can't stay out on strike forever.  "Clearly, it is a very difficult environment to wage strikes" Robert Bruno, a professor of Labor relations at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign tells the WSJ.   The Labor tops love these statements form academics as it gives legitimacy to their strategy of collaboration with the bosses out of economic necessity.

How many times do we hear that "now is not the time".  The Labor hierarchy backed by their friends in academia and the Democratic Party tell us this no matter what the state of the economy, it's never the time.  In every defeated strike or concessionary contract over the past decades we have heard that  concessions were necessary to be "competitive".  When workers buck this trend as happened at a Chrysler plant in Kokomo Ind. some years ago or as San Francisco city workers did recently, the Labor bureaucracy with the help of its full time apparatus, eventually wears the opposition down and forces the concessionary deal through. 

The Team Concept, the view that workers and bosses have the same economic interests is the economic philosophy behind the concessionary approach and has led us to the disastrous situation we are in today. While the rank and file worker has an obligation to openly campaign and fight against this approach from above and build fighting caucuses around an offensive of our own, the defeats suffered over the years are due not to the weakness of organized Labor but the policies of collaboration from above and the suppression of any movement from below that threatens this Labor/management partnership and the relationship between officials and management based on Labor peace.

The professor of Labor relations is also wrong.  This is the most favorable period we have been in in many years.  The fact that the Labor hierarchy has refused to take advantage of such a favorable situation does not constitute a "difficult environment".  The Labor hierarchy is very adept at telling us what we "can't" do, never what we can. There is nothing they fear more than a victory as it would embolden their members, would encourage workers to want more, would place demands on these leaders that they believe are unrealistic, for capitalism that is.  A victory would transform the mood and open the door to further victories threatening their view of the world and their own comfortable positions. They turn every potential victory in to a defeat.  They ensured the uprising in Wisconsin would amount only to an electoral effort to elect Democrats in to office as the demands 100,000 workers in the streets were limited to were two that were of primary importance to the bureaucracy in their roles as negotiators and spokespersons and the Democrats as recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars of Union members' hard earned dues money.

Every dispute, every job action, is isolated from the community as a whole and from the rest of organized Labor.  While every thief and his mother is plundering the public treasury and bankers and other wasters are being bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars by the taxpayers and more than $20 trillion is stashed away in offshore tax havens by wealthy individuals, those at the helm of organized Labor, honest citizens that they are, are about the only force in society that obey the law; except when it comes to their own members that is. They refuse to wage an offensive of our own and instead plead with our enemies to be a little less aggressive, concessions have to be made they say, but not so deep, please.

The strike at Caterpillar could have been won as so many struggles in the past could have been.   But in order to win we have to generalize the struggle.  Every workplace battle must be a battle for jobs, for massive increases in public spending on education, infrastructure, a national health care and efficient public transportation system and an end to the trillion dollar wars of US capitalism.  No union or community can defeat the forces against us in isolation.  We are fighting not individual capitalists, but the capitalist class as a whole; their media, their courts, their police their laws and their two political parties.

There is no shortage of money in society.  But to wage a struggle we can win we must recognize we have to return to our traditions and be prepared to defy their laws that make it possible for the 1% to plunder society's wealth and we cannot take these steps without rejecting the Team Concept, that we have to compete with other workers for who works cheapest and with the least rights and protections and the view that workers and the likes of Warren Buffet are on the same team.

It is through such an approach that we can also build a political alternative to the two parties of Wall Street, coming out of such struggles and based on Unions, community organizations representing workers and small community businesses and other formations that want to change the way society allocates and distributes our collective wealth.   In this way, threats to move a corporation can be stopped by taking it in to public ownership. We can then reach out to workers throughout the world who are facing the same problems (generally in a much more severe form)  and the same enemy. The banks and finance houses should be taken in to public ownership under workers' control an management and capital allocation that is the lubricant of society determined in a collective and planned way for the benefit of all and in harmony with the natural world that we inhabit.

The 1% means business-----so should we.

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