By Richard Mellor Afscme Local 444, retired
The president, Lee Saunders, talks of being the first line of defense and all that but this is pure rhetoric. Saunders claims that at one time nobody was a better advocate for the “rights of all workers” than the American labor movement but “we” he says, “stopped making our case” As the famous dialogue between Tonto and the Lone Ranger goes, ‘What do you mean “we” white man?’. The labor leadership has not stopped making our case. The problem is that they are making it to those whose austerity agenda is driving us backwards.
Saunders’ fiery rhetoric will be applauded by the huge majority at these conferences that are there to trade union pins, get away for a week on their members’ dime, or those looking to claw their way up the union management ladder. The last president, Gerald McEntee raked in somewhere around $500,000 compensation a year so it’s a lucrative game this and many of them have a job for life.
But the minority that attend these conventions with the intention of meeting like minded delegates who seek to build a genuine rank and file fighting opposition to the disastrous concessionary policies of the present leadership; they will see Saunders speech for what it is.
What “front line” is Saunders talking about? The events in Wisconsin offered a great opportunity to turn the tide in this country, to reverse years of concessions and build a genuine militant offensive of our own. Afscme was a major force in that struggle. But the leadership of Afscme, the AFL-CIO and their allies in the Democratic party that left the state as a gesture of solidarity, had no objection to and in fact agreed to all the concessions the state wanted that affected workers wages and benefits.
The Afscme and entire union leadership were concerned with two issues only in Wisconsin. The first was dues check off where the bosses collect the union dues through payroll. This relieves the officials of this burden but also keeps them from having to spend time going round the workplace collecting dues and having to talk to members and answer their questions and concerns. The second issue was the right to bargain, what we call “collective bargaining rights”.
Obviously the right to bargain, to have a union that can speak for us, is important to the members also. But it was such a hot issue for the hierarchy as without it they have no job, they lose their seat at the table. They had no problem negotiating away their members’ standard of living, but please don’t lay me off.
The Democrats in Wisconsin opposed the attacks on these two rights for similar reasons. They get lots of money and human resources from the union leadership at election time. As I have pointed out before, Afscme provided 40,000 volunteers for Walter Mondale’s presidential bid in the eighties. The Democrats need that.
Saunders scene has been played time and time again but it doesn’t fool anyone that is serious about fighting back. It reflects a severe crisis of leadership in the US labor movement that what we see and hear above is considered a highlight. It says nothing. He might as well be talking about salvation in a place in the sky. He talks of US politics being open to the “highest bidder” and that leveling the playing field is necessary so we can all participate.
This week as always, Saunders and the Afscme leadership will be making “our” case as they always do. They will urge their members to vote for their Democratic allies, the agents of the 1% in the workers’ movement. The Afscme leadership gave millions of dollars to elect Obama and a key strategy in this “first line of defense” will be to elect Hilary Clinton come November.
Two speakers at the convention today are both Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Charlie Crist of Florida and Mary Burke of Wisconsin. Nothing changes except we continue to slide deeper in to the hole.
In addition, I would be very much surprised if Saunders or any other speaker condemns the genocide the Zionists are waging against Palestinians in Gaza. The only speaker that might mention it would be the usual religious figures they drag to the podium to bless us all and they will speak in generalities about peace and “restraint on both sides”.
Like it or not brothers and sisters, union members face a war on two fronts; one against the bosses and the other against their entrenched representatives at the helm of our movement. The former is the easier of the two but the latter cannot be avoided either.
Note: Some of us Afscme members published an opposition newsletter that lasted for a few years. It was supported by my own local, Afscme 444, here in the Bay Area, as well as numerous locals in Wisconsin, Arizona and 8 other states. We also had 250 subscribers. We organized a caucus meeting at the 1996 Chicago convention that was attended by more than 100 people. We were on the verge of building a genuine rank and file caucus around that newsletter but for reasons I cannot go in to here, we could not continue it. If the reader would like to see a copy please send an e mail to me. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org