Saturday, May 3, 2014

$15 Now and the struggle to build the movement.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme local 444, retired.

I was intending to write a detailed report from my attendance at the $15 Now conference in Seattle on April 26th but unfortunately some personal issues have derailed that project.  I will however comment on two aspects of the proposal that the conference was putting forward and the part of it that caused the most debate and I have included the few short video clips I took while I was there.

The major discussion at the conference centered around a proposal laying out the strategy and approach for getting 50,000 signatures needed to get an amendment on the ballot in November that would introduce a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle. The proposal itself stated that a “....campaign for a Charter Amendment will put maximum pressure on the City Council to deliver but only if it has a chance of winning.”

The crux of the matter debated was twofold. One was the issue of small business and what constitutes a small business.  The proposal had in it a clause (point 14 sect c) that would allow a 3-year phase in for small business, (any business with under 250 FT employees) and non-profits. These would begin paying a minimum of $11 on January 1 2015 and rise to $15 by January 2018 when all workers will be expected to receive a minimum of $15.  The other issue which is linked was Point 14 sect. e that allows members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union an opt out. Both of these points were voted up by the delegates.

The proposal titled Onto the Ballot and Into the Streets explained under point 14 section e that “Based on discussions with hotel workers and their union….”, hotel and conference workers could agree to opt pout of the $15 min wage provision if their health care plan was guaranteed.*

Both of these sections should have been withdrawn as what is happening here is that the conference and Socialist Alternative which is a considerable force within it is making concessions to appease both small business and the HERE leadership at the expense of low waged workers and the movement itself. I took very little video while I was there as I wasn’t feeling very well but the reader will see in the video above that the general approach of the supporters of the phasing in and the opt out were making the bosses’ and labor officials arguments for them.

The first speaker was a staffer for HERE I would imagine as very few union members these days will announce all the victories their union is having. She supported the opt out on the basis that her members could lose their health benefits if employers were forced by electoral mandate to pay a minimum of $15 an hour. A recurring theme throughout the pro opt out argument was that opposing it was an anti union position as it denied the members of HERE the right to vote on the issue.

Phillip Locker, an organizer for Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant’s political director made a similar argument.  He admitted that the SeaTac agreement passed late last year omitted half the workforce, that 40% of the workers were excluded but stressed it was a step forward (which it is) and that “This struggle is not going to solve every problem in the labor movement.” Which is also correct.  But it is one thing to praise a partial victory after a struggle against the bosses’ agenda; it is a mistake to join forces with it.

The labor hierarchy, is very quick to champion union democracy when their members vote up a proposal they bring to them with all the accompanying arguments why it should be voted up. The supporters of the opt out made the point many times that if we oppose it we are denying the rank and file members of HERE their democratic right to make the decision for themselves. If this amendment fails “we lose”, was an argument made more than once. We can be sure that if this vote is taken to the membership of HERE the groundwork will be laid to make sure the issue becomes, $15 dollars an hour or health benefits, you can’t have both.  Under pressure from the restaurant industry bosses, the union leadership will ensure the climate is right for a membership vote for the opt out.

Anyone that has spent any time as a rank and file union activist knows that when the labor hierarchy plays this card it has the weight of the leadership and its army of staffers behind it.  Thy can mobilize the apparatus when it is needed to sway their own members.

This vote reminds me of all the “democratic” votes taken during contract negotiations over whether workers want layoffs or furloughs (the new name for temporary layoffs which amounted to 20% pay cuts for public sector works here in CA). The workers choose pay cuts and the leadership announces another victory as jobs are saved.. If the members reject concessionary contracts they are brought back time and again until the members are worn down or the leadership imposes them in some way like at Boeing where they orchestrated a yes vote on a concessionary contract.  When Kaiser workers here in the Bay Area were asked to vote on joining hands with the boss in the Team Concept against their best instincts, a glossy pamphlet produced by the AFL-CIO helped workers make the decision.  What if you vote no? The AFL-CIO asked. “ What’s the worst that could happen?” “The worst that could happen…” the pamphlet explained, “…would be for us not to give this ambitious and groundbreaking partnership a chance because things are bad and getting worse. “  There you have it, the membership voted against its own self-interest. **

Another speaker in the video was the head of a non-profit who made the same arguments. Two women delegates one a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and restaurant worker and another a retired public sector worker from California both opposed the opt out. There were also a number of delegates that opposed and suggested other alternatives to defining small business as those with under 250 workers.  These were defeated and the opt out provision passed by a vote of 186 to 72.

The supporters of opt out and phase in are right that the workers’ movement needs to address the concerns of what I would call “community businesses”.   But we do that by calling on community businesses to join the movement for a $15 an hour minimum wage.  These businesses also deal with regressive taxation and are in the clutches of the banks, the insurance companies and the big corporations including commercial landlords who charge them exorbitant rents. Thousands of community ventures go under due to this gouging by big business.

Big business has gone on the offensive in order to defeat the ballot initiative.  The HERE leadership had threatened to oppose it if the opt out wasn’t in it as well from what I understand.  They can then tell the bosses how they helped them remain competitive and that non-union hotels etc. can rest assured they won’t have to pay the $15 an hour which means resisting unionization is not necessary.

The pressure has produced some results from Seattle City council as Wednesday night the mayor announced his own plan that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2017 at large businesses with more than 500 workers if they don’t also receive health care.  “Small businesses will have until 2019 to reach $15 an hour if they do not offer health care or tips. All other small businesses will have to pay $15 an hour by 2021.”***
In the mayor’s plan, small business is a business with fewer than 500 employees.

$15 Now has opposed this plan and are continuing with the ballot initiative campaign.

The success of this campaign will not be determined by the passing of a ballot initiative nor by appeasing the labor hierarchy or small business at the expense of the low waged worker.  When the proposal talks of discussions with the “union” I am convinced these are not discussions with rank and file militants about how to strengthen their union, fight for higher wages, better benefits and to build a nationwide direct action workers’ movement.  The speakers at the conference made that clear in their support of an opt out or lose your benefits argument. Discussions were most likely with leaders and staffers in the main.

I wanted to touch on the SeaTac/Airport issue again.  In 2005 Alaska Airlines laid off 500 workers and contracted out their work.  They just laid them off without any kind of notice, and replaced those people with low-wage jobs at Menzies Aviation according to PBS.  Workers could earn $20 an hour at the ramp then under union contract. The union leaders as usual did nothing.  Now, GCA is a contractor that has 30,000 employees around the country and employs workers at the airport.  Contracting out was a major issue when I was active in the union before I retired. GCA is owned by Blackstone, the Wall Street private equity group, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Blackstone has spent billions buying up foreclosed homes that have been stolen from those who lived in them by the bankers. It is a major renter of single-family homes now. Stephen Schwarzman, one of Blackstone’s two founders is worth $7 billion according to Forbes. Peter Petersen, the other Blackstone founder wants to cut Medicaid and Medicare to make them solvent; he is worth $3 billion.  These are the employers of some of the lowest paid workers around the airport and the workers have been asked to help out small business.  

Since SeaTac’s $15 an hour legislation passed last November, the bosses have gone on the offensive.  A lawsuit backed by the airline and restaurant industries has cut some 4,700 workers out of the $15 minimum because as airport employees they fall under the jurisdiction of the Port of Seattle which is not subject to electoral mandate. One restaurant worker at the hotel I stayed at near the airport told me she “Wished I was just a few miles further west, I only make the minimum here.” The current minimum wage in Washington State is $9.19. She said that she heard employers were using corporate addresses outside of the area to avoid paying the minimum; I couldn’t confirm this.  Instead of offering the union workers the bosses’ option which is health care or wages, (as one speaker said you can’t pay the rent with your benefits) building a direct action movement that would include all workers and community business in the struggle against the big business offensive is what is needed. The opt out and phase in is divisive.

The election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council is an historic event.  Socialist Alternative, the main force within $15 now at this point anyway, should be congratulated for its role in making this happen.  This organization has traditionally had a healthy orientation to the working class and working class-consciousness has been advanced through these developments.

But big business does not sit idly by as movements like this gain some traction.  They also shift on to the offensive. As the movement grows and draws in various elements, $15Now and Socialist Alternative and other groups within it will face many dangers from forces that have a different approach to building an independent, direct action movement that can challenge big business.  The liberals, many of them in non-profits for example, will tend to temper the movement, undermine its militancy and reach out to the left wing of the labor bureaucracy rather than orient to the rank and file of the unions and workers and youth in the communities and neighborhoods.

There is already a danger that those forces that simply want to use the movement to pressure the city council are having an influence and they can derail a movement very easily.  It is these internal struggles in many ways that are the most complex but they are unavoidable if we want to win.

* The answer? What if? AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department/Kaiser Coordinating Committee

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