Friday, January 25, 2013

Union officialdom responsible for decline in membership

11-02-11. Occupy Oakland shuts down the port. More pics
by Richard Mellor

"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." (1)

The response from the heads of organized Labor to the war on public workers and services has been the same as the war on all workers----do nothing.  Well, that’s not exactly true, they offer concessions, just slightly less aggressive ones and in some instances have cooperated with the bosses in terminating local leaders who fight back as in the case of the Freightliner plant in Cleveland NC.  To attain fewer concessions, they throw more workers’ money and full time staff at Democratic Party politicians in the hope of alleviating the worst.

During the height of the assault here in California where workers were forced to take unpaid time off that amounted to 20% pay cuts, the teachers Union, the largest in the country with more than 300,000 members in the state, held a few rallies and at some of them encouraged their members to show their opposition and “wear red” on Fridays as symbols of the pink slips (layoff notices) they were receiving. Needless to say, the bosses weren’t cowed and public services and jobs have been slashed. So it should come as no surprise that almost half of the 400,000 members organized Labor lost last year were in the public sector according to the BLS.

The public sector has a much higher Union density than the private and fresh from significant victories over the once proud UAW, the benchmark group for the American workers’ advance in to the “middle class”, the owners of capital need to get the public sector Unionization rate down to size.  This would coincide with their privatization agenda which will give them greater access to public projects and increase flexibility in hiring which means the ability to fire at will.  The latest figures from the BLS show the public sector declining to 35.9% from 37% and the private sector to 6.6% from 6.9% in 2012 with a 2.8% decline overall. (WSJ 1-24-13)

This is at a time when we saw 100,000 people in the streets of Madison Wisconsin, a huge work stoppage at Verizon and other actions.  The Labor leaders’ strategy of getting a friendly Democrat elected is a catastrophe as Jerry Brown’s assault on workers and the middle class in California shows. In the Wisconsin protests against a political assault on trade Union rights, both the Labor leadership and their Democratic allies supported the economic concessions the bosses were demanding.

The Union officialdom is blaming the decline on “the economy, the state level collective bargaining battles and outdated federal labor laws that they say make organizing too difficult.”, according to the Wall Street Journal.  The Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein reckons it’s like a dog chasing its tail if the WSJ is to be believed, “The decline in membership generates a weaker political position and that leads to a situation where membership declines even more” he’s quoted as saying.

The weaker political position stems not from the declining number of voters the Labor hierarchy can turn out for the Democrats but from the fact that they continue to support this Wall Street Party with our money and resources rather than use them to build an independent party of working people based on our organizations and communities and the myriad of groups that have arisen in the wake of the crash. I am referring to groups fighting foreclosures, school closings, evictions, racism and police abuse for example.  During Jimmy Carter’s four years in the White House not one major bill important to Labor was passed despite the Democrats controlling both houses and the presidency and he used the Taft Hartley against the miners. The same situation existed during Clinton’s first two years and he brought us NAFTA and threw working class women off welfare during his time in the White House.

The failure to organize workers and the drastic decline in our living standards over the past 50 years is the result of the heads of organized Labor’s policies. The law is never on our side and any gains we’ve made politically have been won first in the streets, they are a response to mass action.  The objective conditions were far worse for us in the 1930’s.  But we saw in that period a massive uprising of the working class that not only broke the back of the mighty GM and built the UAW but brought about most of the social reforms we still enjoy today that they are in the process of reversing. Millions joined the trade Union movement in that period. The civil rights movement also brought progressive legislation.

The heads of organized Labor are wedded to the market and capitalism.  They agree that workers have to compete with each other in order to assist either their individual employers in driving their rivals from the market place, or at least increasing their market share, what is referred to as the Team Concept, Labor/Management partnerships and other nice sounding titles.  They apply the same philosophy internationally; siding with US corporations against foreign ones therefore pitting workers in one country against those in another. In his opening address to the 20th biennial convention of the California State Labor Federation in 1994 at which I was a delegate and at which I introduced a resolution for the formation of an independent Labor Party, Executive Secretary Jack Henning said:

"The two party system can't give relief because capitalism in large finances both parties in one way or another.  We may say it finances the Republican Party more.  But have you ever known Democrats en masse to turn down the enticements of capitalism?
"There should originate, in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, a call to the unions for the only answer that is noble: global unionism is the answer to global capitalism.
"We were never meant to be beggars at the table of wealth.  We were never meant to be the apostles of labor cannibalism on the world stage.  We were meant for a higher destiny.  We were never meant to be the lieutenants of capitalism.  We were never meant to be the pall bearers of the workers of the world."

Unfortunately Henning didn’t go beyond the fiery rhetoric and ensured my local’s resolution went down.

In response to the recent BLS figures Labor tops, are taking radical steps indeed calling for,
”stronger labor laws and an end to attacks on collective bargaining rights.” The legal right to bargain is important to them as they wouldn’t have a job without it; they want a seat at the table in order to participate in the destruction of our living standards.  They want their rightful place as junior partners-------as members of the team. Their policy of winning lower paid workers is based on increasing numbers for the purpose of pressuring Democrats at the polls.

The problem is that the bosses are forever discussing, planning and orchestrating new offensives as the strategists of organized Labor continue to hold out the olive branch.  The state is being used more. The courts (bankruptcy is used more frequently to throw out Union contracts and renege on pension agreements) and the police are being beefed up with more advanced weaponry and technology as unmanned drones are seen more in our communities.  All these measure will be used against workers in the struggles ahead including ant-terrorism laws.  From the bosses’ point of view, stopping production is interfering with commerce and that’s terrorism, mass terrorism.

In Wisconsin union membership fell 13.5% last year; in Indiana it fell 18.5%.  Caterpillar shut down its plant in London Ontario where workers refused to take a 50% pay cut shifting production to Muncie Indiana.  Wages at the Ontario plant were $35 an hour, in Muncie Caterpillar is offering $12 to $18. (see here and here and the WSJ  here ) The US is becoming attractive to global capitalists as a low wage, Union free place to do business. Where they can they will move production, close the plants as they do in manufacturing seeking cheaper Labor power elsewhere.  It shows that the issue of nationalization, of public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy is crucial or we will never win.  Even public ownership in a capitalist economy is preferable along the road to workers control and management.

When every opportunity has arisen that could open up an offensive of our own, the heads of organized Labor have successfully derailed it. They undermined the movement that followed the Battle in Seattle when the youth shut down the WTO and thousands of workers praised them.  In Wisconsin they channeled it in to an electoral movement for Democrats.  Here in California, they ensured the student movement against the fee hikes in 2010, the Occupy Movement that followed and numerous strikes here and throughout the country went nowhere. As ardent supporters of the free market they avoid a victory like the plague, after all, where will it lead? Where will it stop? For them a movement of the working class can only lead to chaos and it is from this world -view that all their betrayals arise. Corruption and their obscene salaries, their lifetime positions and other perks, these are secondary factors.

The policies of the present trade Union leadership are a complete failure. They are responsible for the decline. Building opposition caucuses in our Unions around a program that rejects the bosses’ austerity agenda, reject the Team Concept, fights for what workers need on the job and in our communities, jobs (not prisons) wages, increased leisure time, maternity leave, (see some of the US statistics compared to Europe in a previous blog)
a national minimum wage of $15 to $20 an hour and for affordable housing, free federally funded education, health care, transportation etc.  All of these are affordable and can be paid for by the rich and the ending of the wars and dismantling of hundreds of bases to facilitate them. These necessities and a mass direct action campaign to win them is what will swell the ranks of organized Labor, not low interest credit cards and talk of
“shared sacrifice”.  Why support your Union when your wages and living standards continue to decline as dues continue to rise?

While the main responsibility lies with the trade Union hierarchy, I have to raise the issue of what we call the “left” in this country as we have many times before on this blog.  In the years I was active in some of the higher bodies of the AFL-CIO, members that considered themselves leftists, socialists or were members of left groups of one type or another were indistinguishable from the right wing bureaucracy despite militant sounding phrases outside of the movement. In the Labor Council I was a delegate to they refused to openly campaign against their failed policies and acted as a left cover for them; this continues today.  By functioning in this way, some of the best workers, and those looking for an understanding of why things are like they are or where they can go to change them have nowhere to turn.  The left has to reflect on why we have never built a left current in the workers’ movement or outside of it in the working class a s a whole. We have not drawn the most combative workers to our ideas.  The left is absent in local and municipal elections unable to unite around a basic program that connects with the most pressing issues that are on worker’s minds.

Things will change as resistance to the offensive grows and organized Labor will be engulfed in turmoil in the struggles ahead.  But the slow decline may not have reached bottom yet.

“Unions are seeking innovative ways to organize workers” says AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka.  Here’s a suggestion---- an innovative beginning---fight for them.

(1) 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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