|Beware the wolves in sheep's clothing|
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired.
Before I retired and was still active in the labor movement I used to write a fair bit about Afscme, the union to which I belonged. I attended many national union conventions when all the dignitaries, religious leaders and US presidents, Democrats of course, would come along to ensure the union leadership still had firm control of the reins and the cash flow and human resources that were made available to them at election time.
I often commented on the president and secretary treasurer’s columns that appeared in the national union’s quarterly publication, Afscme Works. Like pretty much all of these journals, if they can be called that, the content was very safe and highly uninspiring. After all, the ranks don’t need to get worked up, start getting all militant and all. The general line other than cheerleading, was the need to vote for Democrats and join Afscme. Afscme was the “Lean Green Fighting machine”, this was our slogan. At no point was the idea even floated that with close to two million members our, social and economic power was considerable; we had the power to ensure that if workers’ needs were not met, we could cause severe disruption to profit making.
After a long absence I had a chance to read some of the Spring 2014’s edition of Afscme Works. Sadly, despite the assault on American workers intensifying over the past period, focusing more intently on the public sector after a successful defanging of the United Auto Workers with the assistance of the UAW leadership, nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed for the better.
Having no independent world-view of their own, the trade union hierarchy echoes parrot style the ideology of the bosses, the so-called “progressive” wing of the 1% ---things haven’t changed. We have a new president now, Lee Saunders. I have no idea whether he pulls in the half million or so a year that Gerald McEntee, his predecessor did. I do know that these folks generally have jobs for life once they get in.
Capitalism is OK, “Inequality” is the problem, that is the general thrust of their argument. And from Reich to Picketty the theoreticians of capital sound the alarm from the mountaintops. “Everyone from President Obama to Pope Francis is discussing it.” Saunders says of inequality; “So why not me?, he asks himself. “Our nation has always had rich people, poor people, and people somewhere in the vast middle”, Saunders tells the ranks, and the “desire to move from one rung on the economic ladder to a higher one fueled our ambitions.” I would have to question how “vast” the middle was in the early history of the US as a modern nation state, but we are hearing the same old stuff about the “middle class” and “middle class jobs” that we heard time and time again during the Wisconsin events and after.
Saunders blames “extremist politicians” for this inequality gap, for what he calls the “hollowing-out of the middle class.” Others are talking about this income disparity too he says without naming them, but we know who he means, the friendly billionaires and the good folks like Elizabeth warren and Robert Reich. Perhaps we can throw the IMF in the mix as it too is calling for an increase in the minimum wage. Saunder’s column sounds like an excerpt from Robert Reich’s blog. Inequality has become so pronounced in US society that the new populists like Elizabeth Warren, and Reich are concerned about the future. “How much inequality can we have and still have capitalism?”, Reich asks in his movie Inequality for All, a movie that the union hierarchy shows its member at steward trainings. Reich is a phony populist positioning himself as Yves Smith commented, “….as the economic profession’s answer to Marcus Welby, a seemingly benign, well meaning policy doctor who tells you what’s wrong with you and what you need to fix you up.”
Saunders goes on to promise that Afscme can turn the tables around by pressing politicians to do the right thing basically. Afscme will fight.
Laura Reyes, Afscme’s secretary Treasurer takes the same position in her column adjacent to the presidents. Afscme members need to get out there and explain our, “Mission and values to unorganized workers and encouraging them to join” she writes. It’s simple isn’t it? The 93% of workers outside organized labor just need to be persuaded to come in. The response from the union hierarchy, including Afscme’s, to Wisconsin governor Walker’s attack on bargaining rights, wages and benefits, was to agree to concessions on the latter but protest the two issues that mattered to them and the Democrats most. The right to bargain which affected the officialdom in their role as negotiators without which they would have no job, and dues check off which made the funneling of money in to the Democratic party easier.
We must build “Political power” says Reyes and commends a member, the mother of two boys who finds time to volunteer at a phone bank to “turn out voters for the Texas primary elections.” We must, “..elect new leaders who will protect our pensions, fight outsourcing, and stop the cuts to vital public services” she adds.
It is no wonder most Afscme members wouldn’t have a clue who either of these two are and never even bother to read this uninspiring publication. Further in to the paper another article laments about the Koch brothers and warns members of the danger of legislation that will restrict collective bargaining further (Harris v Quinn).
This has all been going on for a long time. I recall in the nineties when I attended a national conference of Afscme and noticed that they were not pushing the Democrats quite so openly. After all, their man Clinton screwed us on NAFTA and threw working class women off welfare often in to our jobs and with lower pay and benefits if they had them at all. Even this moribund leadership could no longer name their Democratic allies so bad is the record. But they still push on their members a political party that the ranks and the working class as a whole abandoned long ago. They now refer to extremist politicians or just right wing politicians.
It’s no wonder the vast majority of union members in any union that read these publications are either those wanting to claw their way in to the bureaucracy and through that avenue, the lower rungs of the Democratic Party or new people that don’t know any better.
It is obvious to any thinking worker that though they dare not mention it, when the union hierarchy talks of registering to vote or voting they mean voting for Democrats. This is the Team Concept, the view that workers and bosses have the same economic interests, carried in to the political sphere. Cooperation with the bosses on the job; supporting their political party at election time, this is the strategy of the bureaucracy and the primary cause of their betrayals.
Are workers so dumb we do not know that the attacks on wages, benefits, pensions, our material wellbeing in general is being waged by both parties? The average worker may tolerate this because there appears to be no way out. They are right of course. Capitalism cannot show a way out. In its most productive period in the richest and most powerful country in history the capitalist mode of production could not provide most of the population with the basic necessities of life. Only transforming social production from a private for profit affair to a collective democratic socialist system that produces for social need can change this situation.
The union hierarchy is not unique. They have no alternative to the market; they cannot see any other way than what is. They are forced by their own acceptance of the status quo to defend capital at our expense and for those of us that seriously want to change things, within organized labor or outside it, we must first accept that we must challenge capital, confront it rather than appease it and this means rejecting the Team Concept in all its forms, quality of life circles, labor/management committees, Interest Based Bargaining etc.
Things will not change for the better until working men and women take matters in to our own hands.