Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Organized Labor's Crisis of Leadership

This is not because workers don't want unions
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

For years I have listened to labor officials from one union or another including my own,  claim that the reason concessions are necessary is that we are experiencing hard times.  “Now’s not the time” I heard many times.  The most common refrain was that we “Have to be realistic”.

But from the bosses’ point of view, times are never right. Unions were born out of heroic struggle and sacrifice and against the most brutal opposition from the bosses, their hired thugs and the state.  That we have unions at all is a huge accomplishment and over the past period, capital’s war against labor has intensified.  The bosses are determined to take back the gains workers have won over time.

During the 1980’s there were attempts to fight back on the national level.  There were huge strikes at Hormel, Eastern Airlines, Greyhound bus lines and a few others.  These were all defeated through a powerful combination of the employers and the passive role of the union hierarchy. Wages and working conditions in meatpacking deteriorated significantly after the defeat of the 1986 strike that was hastened by the UFCW international union pulling strike sanction from local P9. Meatpacking is still one of the most dangerous industries to work in when it comes to job injuries.

The strike at waste Management here in San Leandro California is another example of the crisis of leadership that exists within organized labor.  The reader should check out earlier reports we have on this blog but apart from fighting the boss, there are disputes between the various union leaderships involved that weaken the chances of victory.  From what I understand, Machinists are crossing picket lines as are other ILWU members and most importantly the Teamster who drive the trucks.

The members of local 6 that are out on the lines earn $12 an hour and are primarily Spanish speaking immigrant workers.  With all the name-calling and accusations being tossed around between the various union officials it is almost impossible to determine who is to blame for what is a nasty and unpleasant situation. 

But there is one thing I do know.  No worker in California should be earning $12 an hour.  This is poverty wages and these people are adults, human beings with families.  Putting it bluntly, their working day is spent sorting through the trash that a million people create. From what this writer was able to find out on the picket lines, the Local 6 contract for sorters expired in February 2011 and the local hasn’t ratified one in 8 years.  The clerical workers at the plant, also in the ILWU, the Machinists and the Teamsters have ratified contracts.

According to Craig Merrilees, an ILWU representative who I spoke to on the picket lines, the company wants these employees to increase their health insurance contribution to $35 a month from the present $25.  As I reported earlier, the workers also want a contract that will ensure the wage increases that were approved by the Oakland City Council that would bring them close to $21 an hour in five years. 

The workers told me on the picket lines of abuses and being treated differently than other employees.  They said the company did not treat them with respect and that this has been an ongoing thing. Is it possible that immigrant workers whose first language is not English would be treated disrespectfully?  Surely not, that would be illegal wouldn’t it?

According to reports in the mass media, both Teamster officials and representatives of the Machinist union have been quite clear about what they think. Rome Aloise, who is president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 and also an official in Local 853, told the San Jose Mercury news that the fight against Waste Management is “unrealistic” and that the workers were just “pawns” of the ILWU leadership and that the campaign for these workers , “…is based on a promise that cannot be met and is designed to create false hopes for the workers.” Well we agree that promises that one can't keep should not be made.  But what we can keep keep and what we can't is determined by the balance of forces, is determined by power.  Rome Aloise's comment that promises cannot be met is confirmation as clear day that the reason for the trade union leadership's concessionary policies is that they have accepted that the capitalist offensive cannot be stopped.

Don Crossato, an official with Machinists union doesn’t think the differences the sorters have with the bosses “warrants a strike”.  And both Crossato and Felix Martinez, of Teamsters local 70 made it clear that what the workers were asking was unrealistic. I would hazard a guess that Crossato is on a lot more than $12 an hour yet he and Martinez tell the Mercury News that, "Even in the heyday of the labor movement, no one got a 65 percent raise in three years. It's crazy to ask you to jeopardize your job for these kinds of proposals and we're not going to do it,"

Imagine how insulting this is to those immigrant workers on the picket lines.  To stand up against abuse, against discrimination and unfair treatment is “crazy” I have known Don Crossatto for years as we were delegates to the Labor Council together and have nothing against him personally, but, as long as you keep your mouth shut working for a union and tow the line, you’ll pretty much have a well paid job with good benefits for life.

And what proposals are so exorbhitant?  They should be on strike for an immediate $8 an hour pay raise.  It is $12 an hour that is “unrealistic”. That is “crazy”; they sort trash at a dump for God’s sake.  We can use all the nice terms like recyclers and sorters and all that but what they do is hard nasty work and they should be paid well for it.  There is also all the chemicals and other dangers they face.  The bosses’ realism and ours stem from two totally different views of the world and the role we play in the production of human needs. It is unfortunate that the comments form these union staffers reflect not the worker’s viewpoint but the bosses.

And 65% doesn’t mean much when you’re only earning $12 an hour, it’ slightly less than $8.  Rome Aloise, the president of Teamsters Joint Council 7 earned a Salary of $269,307 and total compensation of  $322,838 according to Teamster’s For a Democratic Union’s Oct report.  It shows that when considering raises of 65% as being unrealistic, union officials are probably thinking of management’s or union officials salaries.  65% of Rome Alois’s salary, never mind his compensation, assuming TDU ‘s report is accurate, would be around $174,000 according to my calculations. For a 40-hour week that’s about $125 an hour plus expenses I assume, and you don’t have to sift through trash for that. Facts For Working People also pointed out previously that According to PR Watch, “Waste Management's top executives combined made $119,201,381 from 2006 to 2012.

This is realism we need to change and can
Neither Teamster members or Machinists or any other union member can escape the capitalist offensive on workers.  We all feel it. Over the past 30 years and in the aftermath of the PATCO strike when the AFL-CIO did nothing, US workers wages have declined.  Our wages have fallen from about 70% of GDP to 64% according to OECD figures.  According to Popular Economics, “In 1979, the top 1 percent earned about 9 percent of all income; in 2013, they earned 24 percent. The incomes of the top 0.1 percent have grown even faster. More than half of all economic growth since 1976 has ended up in the pockets of the top 1 percent.” 

“The purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen by about 15 percent since 1979. One in five kids lives in poverty.” Reports show.  This is where the trade union leadership’s policies have brought us. The concessionary bargaining; the Team Concept-----this is the result of it.

Before I retired I was active in Afscme, the public sector union an editor of an opposition newsletter.  The newsletter’s position was that no paid union official should earn more than the workers they represent. That the unions should demand on site childcare so having a child would still allow a man or woman to work if they chose to and for an independent working people’s party as an alternative to the two Wall Street parties, the Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats too are complicit in our decline.

It is nothing less than criminal that the sorters at Waste Management are earning $12 an hour and it is a disgrace that union officials should tolerate it and actually undermine it through their actions and their claims in the press that the workers are pawns or crazy or jeopardizing their jobs by their actions.

There is nothing “fair” about earning $12 an hour in a community where one to two bedroom apartments can run from $1200 to 2500.

I am not interested in de-cyphering the squabbles between paid union officials.  If the ILWU leadership is responsible for this mess, the membership has to wage the internal struggle that is necessary to change it; the same with the Teamsters and all unions. A worker told me yesterday that “I’ll do whatever the union says”.  He is right to be loyal to unions, ordinary workers built these organizations at great sacrifice and against the most brutal ruling class on earth.

But being loyal to our organizations doesn’t mean we have to blindly follow those that lead them or tolerate their leadership for life. The head of Afscme international when I was still active was earning about $500,000 a year and was in the position for some 40 years, an organization with the same leader for forty years is not a healthy one. It’s the members’ duty to put a stop to that.

Meanwhile, in the struggle against the boss, we need to raise our expectations.  We need a shorter workweek. We need a minimum wage that provides a basket of goods that allows us to live a decent secure life, food housing, leisure, health care etc. In one area it might be $30 or more dollars like the San Francisco area, in other areas it may be different.  But the percentages should be the same.

We need to help the Waste Management workers win this strike as a first step.

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