Thursday, January 29, 2015

Union Struggles: The members will fight but leaders have to lead.

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

There was a constructive and comradely criticism of my previous blog on the union from a union member.  Her comment was on the Facts For Working People Facebook page (If you like this blog please "like" our FB page) but I would like to respond here as her response raises an issue I have had to discuss many times with activists in my own union and also with local leaders from various unions.

Her comments are: “This article does not describe how my union the IBEW 1974 worked. We elected our leaders who negotiate with the company. It is the company that wants to take us back not the union but the members were not willing to fight so not much the leadership could do about it.”

Firstly, I would like to thank the sister for taking the time to comment and for her comradely tone. I would agree that the main force driving the offensive against our living standards and in fact against the very existence of unions is the boss, or as I often put it, the capitalist offensive.

I also agree that there are times when the members simply don’t want to fight and there are many factors that are involved in that decision.  I have had some disagreements with some leaders at the local level when they have raised this with me. Let’s start by recognizing that when contracts come up or even when an issue in the workplace comes up, the decision to fight is not made in a vacuum.

For one thing, workers might not be the most informed about what’s going on in politics and around the nation but we do read and watch the news occasionally.  We see that over the last few decades strike after strike has ended in defeat.  Sometimes workers are on picket lines for months on end only to go back to work with concessions. In fact, more often than not there are no demands that improve conditions on the negotiating table, the main thrust is to keep what we have or at least only demands that urge the employer to be less aggressive.  Officials will actually take workers out simply for fewer concessions than the boss is asking for or for the boss to be nicer at the table as was the case with the Verizon strike some time back. It is my view that in the main it is the leadership that refuses to fight.

One local official was telling me how the members won’t fight and they accepted the contract that cut benefits. She shared the percentage of members that voted yes.  My first question to her was: “What was the leadership’s alternative?”  This is no small matter.  What was the leadership fighting for, what strategy did they have for winning?

In this example, the leadership put nothing forward, so the only offer on the table was the bosses. This is the norm I would say.   There are thousands of contracts where the bosses have on the table layoffs or, let’s say, 20% pay cuts or equally disastrous cuts in benefits.  The leadership asks the members what they want to do, fight, or send them back to the table, but present no alternative scenario.  The workers decide that a 20% pay cut is better than no job and they vote the contract up.  There you have it, the members have spoken. Democracy in action, workers won't fight, it's their fault.

The membership were not prepared to fight it’s true.  But there was nothing to fight for and no leadership at all.  Leadership has responsibility, we are not just messengers bringing back the bosses’ choices. Workers won’t fight in the workplace for the same reason.  If the union has no real presence on the job, if it's representatives do not aggressively take up the bosses and fight for members in workplace where the “rubber meets the road”, the workers leadership has failed them. Look at the Wisconsin events of a couple of years ago.  Thousands of workers occupied government buildings and thousands of them were new fresh activists.  Yet there were only two demands that the labor leadership and their Democratic Party allies had on the table or that we ever heard about.  These were dues check off where the bosses collect the union dues through payroll which is another tactic by the union hierarchy to keep the members at arms length, and the right to bargain without which they would not have a job or a seat at the negotiating table.  The concessions the bosses wanted were in the main agreed to, we never heard about them despite massive news coverage. The only issues of note were one's that affected the leadership so they could have a seat at the table where they would give up their members rights and benefits, and the revenue stream.

I was part of the leadership and negotiating team for my local, Afscme Local 444, in Oakland
California, back in 1997.  After months of talks we decided that we could not make any more gains at the table, the talking was over.  We had another Afscme local that represented the white collar workers and we fought for years to unite the two.  This time we had a joint meeting of the two memberships as well as 90 rank and file members in attendance at a joint stewards/activists meeting to plan and direct an agreed upon three day work stoppage. This activity alone brought one million dollars in gains that 6 months of negotiations couldn’t. This was the boss’ final offer. The leadership of the two locals parted company after this with the white collar union accepting the offer with a recommendation from the BA.  You can read an assessment of that negotiations here.

We had been reaching out to other unions and the community all through the negotiations, had demands for jobs on the table and a shorter workweek and we had some tremendous support from a number of activist members for this strategy, it was invaluable. Three of us on the 444 team that worked very closely together agreed that we would take the last offer back but we did not support it and would call for a “No” vote.

We had some serious discussions about this because we believed we could not call for a “No” vote if we did not have an alternative, as going back to the table was a waste of time. We explained that we had done nothing up to this point other than move closer together with our sister union, organized two joint meetings and threatened a joint work stoppage. At the contract ratification meeting it was tradition to share our views with the membership and the three of us said that we thought more gains could be made but you cannot vote “No” and go fishing or not become involved in the solidarity committee and the campaigns we had been waging in the community, at the welfare office, the unemployment office and in other workplaces. We needed the ranks of this activity to swell. In other words, there was more to be had we thought and we were prepared to fight but they would have to fight, not just be passive bystanders. The organized mobilization of our members was where the power lay.

We thought that the members would take the contract which was decent and they did.  The point is that they had an alternative and chose not to take it. In fact they are getting a bit of a hammering now, 17 years later. In a situation like this, it is fair to say the members chose not to fight but they had a leadership that was prepared to and had a strategy. If the leadership has nothing how can we criticize the members?

So my response to the author of the comments that her membership weren’t prepared to fight, or anyone that makes that claim, would be : “What had the leadership done to prepare the members for a battle, strategy, tactics, etc. and around what issues?”  She didn’t say that her members accepted a concessionary contract without a fight but if that is the case; what was the alternative to the bosses’ concessions that her leadership put forward?

No comments: