Sunday, October 26, 2014

ILWU local 6 strike. Bureaucratic obstacles and leadership conflict hurts members.

Oakland recycling workers protest city council in 2013.
by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Facts For Working People received a call from Marty Frates, Secretary Treasurer of Teamsters Local 70 based here in Oakland CA.  Local 70 represents truck drivers at Waste Management Corp. Waste Management’s recycle sorters/screen cleaners represented by the ILWU Local 6, struck the company, walking off the job last Friday.  As we reported previously, the Teamsters have been instructed by their leadership to cross picket lines although it is very clear that the drivers are not pleased at these events.

In previous reports I attributed the Teamsters decision to send their members across picket lines to the fact that the ILWU Local 6 is no longer affiliated to the AFL-CIO.  I had called the Alameda Labor Council about this last week and was told local 6 was no longer affiliated so the strike was not AFL-CIO sanctioned. When I was a delegate to the Alameda Labor Council, the ILWU local 6 were in the AFL-CIO.

Marty Frates stated that Local 70’s decision had,  “Nothing to do with the Alameda Labor Council.”  Frates said that the problem was that the leadership of Local six notified Local 70 last Thursday night that they would be striking the company the next morning.  Frates pointed out that it is not that local 6 is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO that led to this situation but that Local 6 representatives, apart from giving the Teamsters very short notice, should have asked for strike sanction and support from the Teamsters Joint Council 7 to which Local 70 is affiliated. Frates also stated that shutting down a service like garbage collection required an obligation to discuss it with the community. He did not define community.

Frates explained that there has been a lot of cooperation between the two unions in the past but also clarified another issue from the Teamster’s point of view.  Many of the striking workers I talked to were very upset as seven years ago when the company locked out the Teamsters, local 6 members walked off in solidarity and lost almost two months pay in the process.  Frates said that this was a different situation and that had the company locked out local 6 members his drivers would support them and would not be working today.

Frates raised some other issues regarding the franchise and recent disputes around which company should be awarded the contract for waste management in the area.  He also felt that the Local 6 leadership has behaved “irresponsibly”, and that the contract that local 6 rejected was a “Fair agreement.”

In the interests of accuracy in reporting events, I appreciate that Marty Frates contacted Facts For Working People to clarify the issue from his perspective.  Frates did make it clear he felt very bad for the local 6 members on the lines and I can only take him at his word.  But this does not alter the extremely negative effect these organizational decisions have on workers, not only financially, but also with regard to the class unity needed in the workplace, the trade union movement and society as a whole if we are to halt the bosses’ assault on our standard of living.   

The employers have always waged war against workers and always will, but this offensive of capital has intensified in the wake of the Neoliberal agenda and Reagan’s crushing of PATCO in 1980 when 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired and banned for life for working in their industry.  This ban was only lifted in the late 90’s. The AFL-CIO did practically nothing in response.  The bosses saw it as a green light and they went on to the offensive against other sections of the organized working class throughout the 1980’s, including the Teamsters.

I have not heard all the details from Local 6 leaders but either way, we have here an organizational dispute and decisions made by people in leadership positions that have serious consequences for the rank and file member and for all workers, organized and unorganized. The ILWU from what I have been told, crossed picket lines of Port Truckers in LA that the Teamsters are backing so the Teamsters are not alone in this.  Even if the leadership of one local in this instance Local 6, has behaved irresponsibly, the question before the next step must be, “What would best strengthen the unity and therefore power of workers on the job and organizationally?” And crossing  picket lines weakens rather than strengthens us.  For the member paying the dues and facing the employers every day on the job, where the rubber meets the road, as I like to say, it’s a very simple bread and butter issue------stick together, don’t cross picket lines. The recycling workers at Waste Management are mostly fairly recent immigrants and also low paid.  They have complained about disrespect and mistreatment on the job.

Unfortunately, disputes between sections of the trade union leadership over jurisdictional and turf issues are all too common and occur between all unions. They literally go to war with each other over this.  I recall some time ago, Afscme, my former union, the Teachers, and the Teamsters were in a battle for 30,000 members in Indiana; they spent $25 million if I recall.  This is a war for dues money, for revenue. I was told by some staffers that they even come to blows with staffers from other unions in organizing drives.  Afscme and SEIU fought each other for the members of the California Nurses Association and the revenue this group would bring.  CNA has since joined the AFL-CIO but these mergers are generally agreed to through discussions at the top, between trade union hierarchies as opposed to discussion and debate among the ranks that would lead to an informed vote.  It does not impress the average union member to see representatives of unions slandering each other.  For the rank and file member, the primary issue is their material well being and improving it. Honoring picket lines is paramount to this.

There are leaders in local unions and perhaps even fairly large ones that genuinely want to change the course of the labor movement. But to do that, it is inevitable that they will conflict with the present leadership’s policies.  The present leadership believes that cooperation with the employers and concessions are unavoidable.  This flows from their view that the free market, profits, bosses’ rights and in the last analysis capitalism, are sacrosanct. They believe that there is no alternative to this form of social organization.  This view is what drives their concessionary policies.  Yes, becoming entrenched in one’s position and excessive salaries are part of the problem but this is secondary.

The Team Concept, and what is more commonly known as “Business Unionism” is an obstacle to raising the wages, working conditions and power of workers on the job and in society as a whole; it is an obstacle to even defending what we have and we can see that as we are losing what took us 150 years to win.  Labor leaders or trade union activists that genuinely believe that we need to transform the unions, that want to fight back, cannot avoid an internal struggle to change the present course, cannot avoid an internal struggle to abandon the Team Concept, and ignore bureaucratic/organizational measures and internal disputes that weaken the power of the rank and file in our battle with the bosses over power and control of the workplace.  In this instance, the position should have been taken that would  honor the picket lines and deal with the consequences of what may or may not have been irresponsible leadership decisions as a secondary option. 

Brother Frates also made a point about the ability of a company to leave the area. "If they don't make money, they're gone", he said. Ironically, Frates' former boss some years ago made a similar comment to me with regard to the manufacturer Jolly Green Giant that closed its US facility and moved to Mexico and whose employees were represented by Local 70.  They all do this, blackmail communities in order to receive tax breaks from the community and wage and benefit concessions from the workers. My response to this is the same as it was back then----take the company in to public ownership. Waste Management should not be a business, it's run by moneylenders, speculators and millionaires. If we do not take this position, (see the previous blog) that a company does not have the right to destroy a community and eliminate jobs in its owners rapacious quest for profits, and offer as an alternative public ownership, we inevitably end up joining the bosses' offensive against workers. We end up on their side.

The defense and welfare of the rank and file union member and the interests of the working class as a whole is primary.

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