by Richard Mellor
Afscme local 444, retired
Reading the post International Convention statements from Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and Laura Reyes, the union's Secretary Treasurer I see that the script hasn't changed, only the faces of the actors have.
I attended most conventions from 1980 to 1998. I attended them not to simply report back, in other words, be a messenger boy. I never intended to swap union pins or just have a good time. Myself and a few others went to conventions in order to build links with the small percentage of delegates who saw that there is latent power in these organizations and that in order for that power to be utilized, a rank and file opposition had to be built that could replace the class collaborationist business unionism of the existing leadership with a real fighting alternative.. The present leadership of organized labor acts as an adjunct of the Democratic Party.
Most conventions are held in major metropolitan centers that have the facilities to hold 4000 delegates. They are very much modeled on the political conventions held by the two Wall Street parties and keynote speakers are often liberal religious figures and Democratic Party politicians seeking our endorsement, money and volunteer foot soldiers. Afscme supplied Walter Mondale with some 40,000 volunteers.
There is a lot of chest beating and pumped up rhetoric as I explained in an earlier commentary. This is to cloud the reality that the policies of the leadership are pro-market, concessionary and favorable to capitalism. One of the most comical exhibitions of this false bravado was the end of the week march and rally to support a local picket line of workers on strike. I remember in Las Vegas we marched to a hotel workers' picket that had been going on forever---the Lean Green Fighting Machine the leadership called it.
Of course, the bosses' had to chuckle to themselves at such a sight knowing very well that the couple of thousand people on the picket line that day was a one-time affair to give the impression that something was being done and would leave town the next day. In the above video we hear the same old chants as our power declines along with our living standards, with the help of labor's leadership at the highest levels. The cab drivers are being fed false hope as the throng will disappear as quickly as it arrived. It was a photo op to put it bluntly.
Saunders in his short comments in the Summer issue of "Afscme Works", the moribund publication of the union, sounded just like Gerald McEntee, the president before him who was cemented in the job for 31 years or so. "We made news at our 41st Annual Convention" Saunders wrote, noting that 92,000 new members came in to the union (multiply 92,000 by the monthly dues and this is what matters to them) and by "Flooding the streets of Chicago with an ocean of green in support of the city's cab drivers." This activity has no effect whatsoever on the cab drivers struggle and is not unlike the great parades of the Stalinists in Red Square or the boasting of the success of the economy on state television. Saunders is very pleased to have the support of "President Obama and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez." We have seen great advances in living standards, benefits and rights with these two on our side haven't we?
There was the usual religious speaker to give the union officialdom some credibility with a Rev. William Barber appealing to the delegates to come together to fight the Koch brothers and "other billionaires" . The religious leader in the video is there for the same purpose. Religious figures should be kept out of our affairs. Not everyone is Christian.
So what we have is the same old tape being played over and over again. The convention is a chance to push for the leadership's Democratic Party friends and help them get elected this year. The Afscme leadership along with all of organized labor will donate hundreds of millions of dollars to the Wall Street politicians in the Democratic Party this year as they have so many times before.
"Job No.1 coming out of the convention is to ensure that we defeat the union-busters in state houses and Congress in November...." Saunders writes warning the delegates that we have to, "..elect candidates who will stand up for all working families by defending the right to bargain collectively and help fulfill the American Dream of retirement security.". Two Democrats running for office reminded the delegates of the importance of voting, "Basic workers' rights and the livelihood of every public employee is at stake", Saunders writes calling on the delegates to elect these friends of his.
The election of these Democrats is always "critical". At one time it was more common for the union officialdom to call on us to support "Democrats" using the title more openly. It was critical we elect Mondale, Carter, Dukakis, Clinton who promised to save us from NAFTA, and Gore, less said about that wimp. I was at a convention where a factory owner who was perceived as "good" by the leadership was a major speaker. Tech billionaires that support Obama and the party are "good" Oil billionaires bad. Never is the nature of society, the way society is organized an issue The inherent exploitation of labor by capital or how billionaires get their money is not discussed. I am sure nothing of any substance was said about US foreign policy or Gaza.
Millions of workers have abandoned the electoral process entirely reaching the correct conclusion that on the basics, food, shelter, wages, etc. there's not much difference between the parties, so Democrats are also despised and it's much more common for the leadership to use the term "working families" and not use the term "party" at all.
The two Democrats in question are running against governors Walker in Wisconsin and Scott in Florida and the "critical" issue from the union leadership's point of view is collective bargaining rights. Both Democrats and the union hierarchy are terrified of losing this. For the union leadership it would mean they have no job, no seat at the bosses table at which they can bargain away their members' rights and conditions at a slower pace as they keep the dues money coming in. For the Democrats, they too would lose out as a source of campaign funding would be severely curtailed.
That the right to bargain was codified in law is a good thing. But all the laws that benefit workers were already won on the ground and codified after massive struggles, including the right to unions period. Our ability to stop the economy functioning is where our power lies.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the concessions the bosses wanted in Wisconsin, those that harmed the membership economically were agreed to by the Democrats and the labor hierarchy--------a seat at the table and dues checkoff were placed at the top of the list. The list of betrayals and attacks on our living standards by these so-called friends of labor in the Democratic Party is too long to consider. Carter used the Taft Hartley against the miners and began the deregulation binge continued by Reagan. Clinton kicked working class women off Welfare (often in to our jobs with lower wages and benefits) and brought us NAFTA after promising to defend us. Perpich used the National Guard against the Hormel workers in Minnesota. * Edward Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, while lowering business and wage taxes went after the public sector making us pay as they always do for the failures of the market. Jerry Brown is savaging public services and workers in California. Despite examples like these, the labor hierarchy still ties itself to the Democratic Party, pushing workers to vote for a party that most abandoned long ago.
My view as I have stated many times before, is not that the union hierarchy is corrupt, in the sense that they take bribes, are connected to organized crime etc. While this may occur in cases and there is no doubt their jobs for life and often obscene salaries encourage them to entrench themselves in their positions, the main problem is that they are ideologically corrupt.
What I mean by this is that they have the same world-view as the boss. They worship the market and see no alternative to capitalism. They look to a non-existent progressive sector of the capitalist class that they hope would bring back the good old days of the post World War Two era where certain reforms for a significant chunk of the working class were won and maintained for a period. They plead with their allies in the Wall Street parties to please turn the clock back.
"But couldn't they have the same approach if the broke from the Democrats and organized labor ran its own candidates?" workers might ask.
Yes they could. But the problem there is very similar to the reason they don't really want the rank and file active; it's one thing to get 10,000 people to a meeting, it's another to control what they want.
Such a break would put the hierarchy in an awkward position, place demands on them that would threaten their relationship with the bosses built on labor peace. Taking such a step would mean mobilizing people to a certain extent, expectations would rise, anger would find an outlet and pressure would mount on the labor leadership to "produce the goods." They like their cushy jobs.
The problem is that they do not believe they can "produce the goods." It's a real dilemma. So they appeal to what we might call a non-existent liberal wing of the ruling class, to its billionaires and political representatives to please, please please, throw us a few crumbs from the table.
And even if the labor leadership take that road politically, they would do so with the same worldview, a return to the good old days, a more fair and equitable system. But the system is not fair and equitable. Capitalism guarantees winners and losers, more losers than winners. The capitalist mode of production has never been able to provide basic security for all. In the era of globalization, it is incapable of providing any significant reforms for any period of time in the advanced economies and offers nothing but environmental catastrophe and war and extreme poverty and violence in the underdeveloped world.
This doesn't mean the road of political independence shouldn't be taken. It is my belief that the struggle for reforms will find expression politically and should be supported because it is through struggle that we learn. But for permanent solutions to the poverty, violence and insecurity of the market, and no struggle is successful without a permanent solution of this nature, we have to confront what is a dictatorship of capital and organize society along democratic socialist lines.
The present state of organized labor, saddled with the leadership it has, will mean we will most likely see such developments arise outside these traditional workers' organizations. It's quite likely we will see further decline before a revolt takes place inside, but the conditions are such, the anger beneath the surface of society so strong, that we can not rule out anything at this point.
* For an account of the P9/Hormel struggle check out Hard Pressed in the Heartland by Peter Rachleff.
- AFSCME Local 444 negotiations assesment 1997
- Preparing for Revolution: A discussion document
- The Internal lives of Revolutionary Organizations
- Socialist Alternative members: Questions and Answers
- Sanders: Our Alternative
- The Nature of the New European Left
- Catastrophic Climate Change: Caused by Capitalism
- University of California workers and Unions
- An Invitation to Our Readers