Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The unnavoidable battle for control of our unions.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

It is inevitable that any conversation with the average rank and file union member will eventually lead to the question of the leadership and the concessionary contracts they impose on the membership.  Why won’t they fight?  They’re corrupt. They’re taking bribes. Why did they put this no strike clause in the contract? Why would they agree to layoffs and furloughs? (temporary layoffs)

The frustration among the ranks of organized labor is considerable. And it would be foolish to deny there is corruption, dishonesty and other similar practices on the part of the union hierarchy, not to mention the obscene salaries and other perks they give themselves. But these are secondary factors behind the betrayals that have included joining with the bosses in firing militant activists.

I have made my view on this very clear over time.  The main reason for the crisis of leadership that exists within organized labor is their worldview.  The present leadership has the same view of society as the bosses. They accept that the capitalist mode of production is the only way society can be organized and they consider the right of the boss to own the factory as inviolable, They have the right to move production if they wish and to control how work is organized.  For the labor hierarchy and its allies in academia and the Democratic Party, profits are sacrosanct, without profits there is no work and no society.  Despite workers building unions to protect us from the market and competition, the union leadership at the highest levels sees the unions as employee association with themselves as the CEO’s and it is their job to supply labor power to the bosses at the most competitive price. As I have stated before, if the union hierarchy were CEO’s of major corporations they would likely have been let go log ago for failing to produce the goods.

The dues paying working union member feels the destructive effects of this worldview every day through declining wages, benefits and work conditions. We are also confronted with it head on if we begin to question the effects of these policies if and when we get to union meetings.  The union tops talk and talk about the need for members to become active in our unions but only if we do not question their failed policies; we must not rock the boat.

Workers naturally oppose the bosses’ offensive and the ongoing destruction of work rules, wages, benefits and other gains that were fought for and won over decades of heroic struggle.  Workers cringe when their union leadership ushers them over picket lines along with the boss as the leadership’s of competing unions engage in destructive personal feuds as the Teamsters did in the Waste Management strike taken by ILWU Local 6 in San Leandro California last year. (See below)  The leadership ensures that meetings are designed not to inspire or mobilize the tremendous potential power of organized labor that exists even as our membership declines.  They will try to suppress any opposition movement from below that threatens the relationship they have built with the bosses based on labor peace------a peace brought about at their own members’ expense.

The response we often hear from disgruntled members is that they need to decertify one union and join another or in other cases need to build a new union. Sometimes it might be a competing leadership whose goal is to replace the existing one but with the same polices or simply on the basis of needing a “democratic “ union.

But this crisis exists throughout the trade union movement, concessionary policies, business unionism and in general pro-management policies that are backed up by an army of staff whose role it is to implement them. There is no way out by simply decertifying or leaving one union to go to another.  Also, the idea of building an alternative is equally difficult.

I was once told that workers are like electricity, we take the line of least resistance.  This is true and there are many reasons for it. We want to keep our jobs in the face of an army of unemployed that capital uses as a threat, keeps on the sidelines to keep us on our toes, always afraid we’ll be replaced. They keep us in debt when we have mortgages to pay and kids in college.

But as I used to say to my co-workers, the bosses will not let up; they are forced by the laws of the system, the very laws the union officialdom accept as inviolable, to drive US workers conditions back 100 years.  We have no alternative but to fight.
AFL-CIO's Trumka with friends.
Any rank and file union worker or activist wanting to change the present decline in our living standards will inevitably come in to conflict with the present leadership, we cannot avoid this and trying to avoid it by moving from one union to another, appealing to lawyers and the courts or forming new unions from the ground up is no way out.

Instead, we have to openly confront the disastrous policies that have brought us this far.  Rank and File opposition caucuses must be built in the unions based on a program that challenges the bosses offensive, demands what we need not what the boss, the union hierarchy or their friends in the Democratic Party and Congress tell us is realistic. We have to be clear that if we are to challenge the present leadership, we have to explain what we will do that is different. We must challenge their record, a record of doing the same thing over and over again despite miserable failure. Of course, we should remember, the union officials that impose concessionary contracts on their members never have to work under them.

We must campaign in the union halls and out in the open if we are to tap in to the tremendous anger and displeasure that exists among the dues paying members who have given up. We must learn our labor history and discuss strategy, tactics, what has worked and what hasn’t. That’s what political warfare demands. The Union hierarchy and its army of staff are paid to strategize, not how to win but how to concede and prevent revolts form below. At best, their policies are ones of damage control; hardly a way to inspire workers to fight or even come to meetings. We have the burden of work and having to do it in our free time. But we have no choice if we are to halt this slide in to third world status.

Workers will fight if we see a leadership that is willing and more importantly has a thought out program and a plan.  As a democratic caucus grows, its program and policies become more alive, more filled out through the involvement of workers ourselves.  We have access to our co-workers and fellow union members. We can begin the process of transforming the unions in to real fighting organizations by building around some demands such as:

Opposing the Team Concept: Workers and bosses do not have the same interests
Across the board wage raises that meet our needs not the bosses.
Support a liveable minimum wage $20 an hour or pay that equals a basket of goods necessary live a decent life.
Organize to rid no strike clauses from our contracts that are designed to undermine solidarity.
Fight for same contract dates in workplaces with more than one union
Build an intra union regional and nationwide militant shop stewards movement
Increase vacations and time off. US workers work two months more per year than workers in most industrialized countries.
Fight for a shorter workweek with no loss in pay and to create jobs.
Organize the unorganized.
Fight sexism and racism and other divisive tactics on the job.
Fight for on site childcare to relieve families of the burden of work and family
Build links with the communities we serve or work in and take up social issues like police abuse, the environment etc.  We can win if we build a wider movement.

All paid union officials should be elected and paid no more than the average wage of the workers they represent and subject to recall. When members are on called out on strike, all officials should receive the same strike pay.

We must also raise the issue of political action and the disastrous and expensive support the union officialdom gives to the Democratic Party. Working people must have a party/candidates of our own, independent of big business.

The purpose of this commentary was not to lay out a detailed program for union caucuses but to share this writers general views on what we are faced with. In particular my aim is to counter the view that there is an easy way out through decertification or building new unions. The leadership is not invincible, but they are entrenched. They hang though like rotten apples from a tree; with the slightest wind they will fall. The Rank and file have the numbers, have the power, they are that wind.

Note: More on the Waste Management strike

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