Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What's behind the union officials' betrayals?

Debs: an American working class hero
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I was talking with some public sector workers the other day and we talked a little about the unions.  In most cases, when you talk to workers about the situation on the job, they will express anger at the union for not being there.  With the folks I spoke with it was the same old story.  The union officials have no presence on the job and are not easy to contact.

When they do deal with an issue it is more often than not to reach some sort of compromise, usually at the workers’ expense.  And how can they not?  The boss has rights, rights that are deemed sacrosanct by the strategists of organized labor and accepted by most local officials. The dominant and most destructive philosophy among the strategists atop the AFL-CIO is the Team Concept.  As I have explained before, this is the view that workers and bosses have the same economic interests. We are on the same team. The Team Concept goes by all sorts of nice sounding names,” Quality of Life Circles”  “Workplace Committees” “Interest Based Bargaining” and more. The Team Concept forcing workers to compete with each other as it does makes building solidarity very difficult including international solidarity.

For most workers, this goes against our basic gut instinct regardless of our political views.  Our work lives teach us that the boss will try to get more for less----always. The Team Concept leads to a vicious competitive race to the bottom.  It pits workers in one industry against workers in another in one country against another as they compete to help their own individual bosses gain market share and profits at the expense of their rivals.  One set of workers accepts concessions to keep their jobs at least but their bosses’ competitor convinces his or her workers to undercut them and the race is on.

In the public sector where I worked, the threat of contracting out our work to the private sector is always present. If we don’t “tighten our belts” the county, the state, whichever public service we work for will lose jobs to the private sector. Privatization is the goal of course. The most efficient postal service in the world, the USPS is losing money the 1% says so how can it be efficient?  Well, no matter where you live in the US you get your mail. In vast rural areas, the mailman is often the link to the outside world especially for older and poor people.

The private sector wants to eliminate 4000 post offices, many in rural areas.  This is the 1%’s efficiency. The cost is minimal when compared to the trillions spent on the corporations’ wars or the macho jockeying for market share in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. For the 1% it’s about profit, a public service, (unless it reduces their risk and enhances profits for the private sector in some way) crowds out private capital therefore reducing profit-making opportunities. But for the vast majority of us allotting money for mail service, education, transportation, and other social needs is simply returning to us, the wealth we create in the form of necessary social services.  This is a step closer to a civilized society.  A coupon clipper like hedge fund managers who bets that workers and old people will be evicted from their homes and earns $5 billion doing it is not progress.

I ventured too far on this subject though so let me return to the reason the union, or more accurately, the union officialdom has no real presence on the job or when they do it’s to compromise at the members’ expense.  Many workers say it is their connection to the Mafia or organized crime. Others say they are taking bribes etc. There is corruption in society so the trade union movement is not exempt from it.  But the main cause of this compromise and the outright betrayals is that even most local officials accept this world-view; that the boss and the worker have the same interests.  They start from a position of compromise, we see it every day, this is the main reason workers arte not active in their unions, they are faced with an internal struggle to change the policy of compromise that almost every leadership adopts and that struggle, as well as fighting the boss, seems such a daunting task. The struggle for the direction of the union is the harder, more complex struggle.

As long as in our own minds we see no alternative to capitalism, that we accept that profit is sacrosanct and worship the laws of the market as if this form of social organization has ruled for all time, then any rank and file union member or opposition group will end up doing exactly what those they want to replace is doing.  The question any worker must ask or any candidate for change must be asked is “What is your program and what do you propose to do differently form the present leadership?”

Never Compromise
So what about compromise?  Before I became to understand the ideas of socialism and learn about labor and revolutionary history. I had the notion that the Bolsheviks, the party that led the Russian Revolution were mad.  I thought this because I had the false view that they never, and particular Lenin, never ever compromised on anything.  Now any working class person knows that such a position would be suicide. We know through our life experience that sometimes we have to compromise. But this was the standard propaganda of the 1%.

After being exposed to the ideas of genuine or democratic socialism and histroy and let’s recall that Marx said that, “Democracy is the road to socialism.” it became obvious that a broader understanding of the world and how it actually works was crucial if I were to be successful as a rank and file union activist.  And by successful, I mean by helping myself and my co-workers in our day-to-day struggle against the bosses as opposed to climbing through the ranks of the union bureaucracy.

Lenin (and I am not saying Lenin never made mistakes) responded to this accusation I discovered some years later.  He wrote a short piece titled  “On compromises”. In it he wrote:
“The task of a truly revolutionary party is not to declare that it is impossible to renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises, when they are unavoidable, to remain true to its principles, to its class, to its revolutionary purpose, to its task of paving the way for revolution and educating the mass of the people for victory in the revolution.” (Emphasis added) *

This is something every worker understands.  We make compromises when the balance of forces are such that we have to make them, that it is a strategic and conscious decision to make them.  And we make them with the understanding that this does not mean abandoning our goals. We do not start from the position that we are in this war to make compromises, to compromise our basic principles. A boxer doesn’t enter the ring with the understanding that he shouldn’t hit his opponent because he might hit back.

The dominant cause of the betrayals, of outright collusion with the boss or the refusal to fight in general on the part of the union reps is that they, knowingly or not, accept the Team Concept. The obscene salaries of the top leadership are absent with most local leaders, many of them rank and file workers also, and while some of them opportunistically use the union for their own ends, in the main they are not present because in the last analysis accept the union hierarchy’s philosophy of compromise.  How can you mobilize the members against the boss when you believe your members’ interests and theirs are the same.

If we understand this as the underlying cause of the union leadership’s failure to fight for their members interests and the interests of the working class as a whole, we can do something about it and most importantly avoid repeating the same mistakes.

* Lenin: CollectedWorks Volume 25. Written September 1917


S Carbonaro said...

Richard, when I first heard you speak of these things
(About 20 years ago) I thought you were full of it.
Today I apologize for that. I now know that you, Mr. Mellor, speak the truth. You know what you are talking about, and relate it with vigor. Thanks for opening my eyes.

Stephen Carbonaro

Richard Mellor said...

This is very kind of you Steve, thank you very much. I always recall you being a good union man as well. When we think even of the old timers like Ray Ahearn, Solomon Jones, Manny Pontes, and others, as conservative as some of them were, they risked their jobs and forced our employer to recognize our union. The bosses never give anything. Everything we have came from the heroic struggle and sacrifice of workers before us and we should not deny these things to future generations without a fight.