Sunday, February 15, 2015

Union: Boeing, USW, ILWU: More Groundhog Day Trailers.

Source: WSJ
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

It’s tough at times reading the reports on labor disputes; it’s like watching the movie Groundhog Day over and over again. But this movie is not a comedy; it’s a tragedy.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union is in negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, an organization representing the numerous employers who make their money in the shipping business and its related industries. Its members are both domestic and international companies. I commented on this dispute earlier this month.

As of this writing they appear to be at an impasse.  We never hear about these goings on until the clash breaks in to the open and the public are affected. Then the full force of the bosses’ media enters the fray.  The ideological war takes center stage before the hammer falls.  The stage has to be set that will shape public opinion just as we saw in the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike here two years ago when public support for the train operators that run the Bay Area transit system shifted more in favor of the bosses. It took time, but if you fling enough mud at a defenseless foe, it will eventually stick.

The port bosses are expected to lock the dockworkers out if the union leadership continues to sit there hoping for divine intervention.  The entire West Coast could be shut down as it was in 2002, the last time the bosses locked the ILWU out.  The employers are very confident, the bureaucracy that sits atop organized labor has shown that it will not bring the potential power of the members to the table and will not organize a generalized resistance to what is a an offensive of capital, a strategy designed to drive the US working class further backwards.

On most issues the union hierarchy is silent. As is always the case and with justification, most people’s view that unions only fight for their own members interests will be reinforced.  I remember being on the UFCW’s picket lines during what could have been a victorious strike here in California in 2003. The UFCW sent hundreds of striking workers up north to man informational pickets to convince shoppers not to shop.  “Help us save our benefits”, the picketers would ask of the shoppers at times.  A fairly common response was, “What are benefits?”  The union leadership had no answer to this appeal for help as they have no offensive strategy, just damage control for the small percentage of the population who are union members. The UFCW's members in Northern California were working behind the picket lines as their contracts were not up and we know that the labor leadership is the only force in society that obeys the law when it comes to their own member's rights and they have an agreement with the boss; a gentleman's agreement.

The ILWU leadership has already made public appeals to the bosses to please make a deal as they have dropped all their proposals (see the statement in the link above).  This increases the bosses’ confidence and invites further aggression.

It should be the ILWU that is shutting down the West Coast ports, an action that would cost about $2 billion a day according to reports in the media. The ILWU should be spending resources both human and financial, reaching out to the rank and file of the labor movement, the unorganized and our communities explaining that they will shut down the ports as the beginning of a new era, the reversal of decades of concessions and the destruction of our living standards.

For the leaders of the ILWU, local leaders like Local 10 here in the Bay Area, this would mean a struggle against the entrenched ILWU International bureaucracy that, like all of them, has intervened on the side of the bosses whenever rank and file groups or local unions have risen to put a stop to the concessionary trend; this is why they won’t embark on this journey.  It is the task of rank and file activists to build fighting caucuses on the ground, in the workplaces and union halls aimed at replacing the present pro-business clique atop our organizations. Demands must be made that can draw the communities, the youth and the unorganized in to the struggle---jobs, education, health care, housing, transportation and so on. Police brutality and the mass incarceration of youth, especially youth of color should be made an issue in such a struggle.  The silence of the heads of organized labor on the Ferguson events was deafening.

We saw only recently a similar situation with regards to the Boeing workers when the Machinist Union’s rank and file rejected further concessions and the International leadership came in on behalf of the employers and pushed a concessionary contract through.

The ILWU locals should put out a call for a united front against what is an international gang of bosses in the Pacific Maritime Association. What point is there belonging to a national union body when it allows individual locals to fight an international group of employers alone?  It’s a recipe for defeat from the get go.  As the ILWU finds itself in this position, the USW (steelworkers union) has struck major refineries. Read more about that here.  Here is yet another opportunity for organized labor to take the lead in fighting to reverse the setbacks we have suffered over the last 40 years. 

No one says it is easy, but it is necessary.  The bosses will not stop the assault on workers and the middle class; the global situation demands it and they are intent on placing us on rations.  The union leadership is afraid that any step in this direction will bring the full force of the bosses down on us as as it did Bush in 2002 using the Taft Hartley to get the docks open and even using Homeland Security to harass union leaders before playing the “terrorism” card. The bosses’ will try all these things as they have shot and deported us in the past. But we won what have today so they didn’t get their way entirely. But both the bosses and the union leaders alike are aware that an offensive like this would inspire all the elements that were involved in occupy, the foreclosure movement, rental struggles, environmental rights groups against fracking, women's rights groups and immigration activists. Throughout the country there are separate groupings fighting back around various issues.

The bosses and union hierarchy are aware of the intense anger and hatred of the rich that exists beneath the surface of US society and are afraid of its potential to threaten the system itself.

Since the WTO events in Seattle in 1999 and the Occupy Movement more than a decade later, the US state apparatus has built up and militarized its security forces.  But we have power, we have numbers, we make the economy function. The bosses will not stop and we cannot avoid a battle with them.  We must respect their power but we must not underestimate ours. We must not allow racism, sexism, and other forms of divide and rule tactics undermine our class unity, the unity that can pave the way for a future different to the one the 1% has for us.

We must re-learn the rich militant history of the US working class and all those who fought against the super exploitation that is at the root of the rise of US imperial power.

I saw a steel worker interviewed about the strike this week.  He repeated the views that the labor hierarchy propagates at times like these.  This worker appealed to the community and the general public not on a class basis but by way of attacking other workers.  He spoke of workers getting burned or harmed and of safety problems.  He talked of maintenance being done by people contractors, people being brought in who have not had the training, “we don’t know what their qualifications are” he said, but the main point is these other workers aren’t doing the quality work that the USW (Union) workers can do. The strike is not about money but safety he says. (See note below.)

I didn’t listen to the entire interview but this line of defense comes from the labor hierarchy.  It’s an attack on the unorganized who the labor officials should be organizing but won’t. The stress is on safety to counter the bosses’ propaganda that workers are greedy etc.  It is a thoroughly conservative and elitist defense and it helps to isolate union workers further from the mass of the working class outside our organizations.  I was at one AFSCME International Convention when I delegate rose from the floor to trash the little item that came in the union bag we all received as delegates, some bottle opener or simple device.  He trashed the item as shabby because it was made in China. He received support from the president's podium and much applause from the floor. I rose to respectfully remind us that we were an international body and these works are our super exploited brothers and sisters, they are not our enemies. 

We must counter these views that the labor hierarchy hands down to the ranks to be repeated by well meaning members.  They are destructive and against all workers’ class interests. None of us are special or indispensable when the boss decides we’re too expensive.

We can determine this contract negotiations will have another favorable outcome for the bosses’ in general, not just the PMA.  “Right now it’s almost like a war of attrition. They’re going to stay in the trenches and wait to see who blinks first,”, the Wall Street Journal quotes one trade economist as saying.  That is exactly where the trade union leadership should not be.  The employers as they keep them tied up there are using all their forces to prepare for the final blow and at that time they’ll leave that table. 

That’s exactly what the union leadership should be doing but we know they’re not.  They fear nothing more than a victory.

Added note: I assumed this steelworker was talking about their work that the bosses contract out when he is referring to contractors bringing in "unqualified" workers. As I re-read this and listened to the interview with the USW worker on strike, it is not clear whether or not he is talking about this or about scabs being brought in and it is them he is accusing of not being qualified.  Either way, I think the same false method still applies, this view that "we" are special. Scabs are workers being used to break strikes. We have to stop them if we can, whether they are qualified or not.  But we also have to make class appeals to them as well. and the labor movement must fight aggressively to organize the unnorganized and the unemployed which it does not do at present.  They are supposed to respect picket lines put up by organizations representing a smaller and smaller section of the working class that have no program and strategy outside this group.

In this video it also appears that the majority of the picketers are from outside of the organized labor movement.  This is a good thing, that people from the community, environmental groups and other concerned  organizations are there. But organized labor will never win this way, without the rank and file of the labor movement being mobilized and the struggle generalized.  The labor leadership are quite happy to let well intentioned individuals man picket lines for them.  But this is no substitute for  an active conscious and militant rank and file membership.

Here is the video interview from the

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