Saturday, February 21, 2015

USW and ILWU leadership is the obstacle to victory

USW rally at the Marathon Refinery in Kentucky
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table. George Schultz

The strike by the United Steelworkers (USW) against the oil refineries is in to its 20th day with the union rejecting the oil companies last offer on Thursday according to reports.  The USW represents workers at 65 U.S. refineries that produce approximately 64 percent of the oil in the U.S. but has only struck nine plants (see my previous post).  The remaining plants are on 24 hour rolling contract extensions but can be called out anytime. But as long as workers passively wait at refinery gates on ineffective picket lines as negotiators try to make a deal, the outcome does not look good.

As I pointed out in previous posts on this issue, we are seeing the same old failed strategy.  The union hierarchy is meeting in secret trying desperately to get the global energy corporations to be less aggressive in their dealings with the union.  The official USW website points out that this is an unfair labor practice strike.  Strikes are rarely about making gains these days because the stifling bureaucracy atop of organized labor accepts that their job is to help the bosses keep the profits coming in.  In many cases, the union hierarchy takes the members out on strike to try to force the employers to talk to them. In many cases there are no demands whatsoever, simply a plea to the employers to be nicer.

This was the case in the Wisconsin events of a couple of years ago when all concessions the bosses wanted were agreed to by the leadership except dues check off and bargaining rights. Both these issues affected the officialdom in their role as negotiators.  Without a seat at the table they have no job and without dues check of both the leadership and their allies in the Democratic Party are starved of funds.

But like most workers today, refinery workers are overworked and understaffed, working as long as twenty nine twelve hour days in a row according to Jim Savage, president of USW Local 10-1 in the Philadelphia area. Savage was asked by talk show host, Rick Smith, “What happened to the 40 hour workweek?”. Unfortunately, organized labor’s leadership long ago abandoned the idea of a shorter workweek continuing the historic trend to reduce working hours. The union leadership is stressing that the strike is not about economics but safety, safety for the workers and the communities in which they work.  But there was a huge explosion at the Exxon/Mobil refinery in Torrance, California last week and the union has refused to pull those members off the job.

I stopped by a picket line yesterday and, like all strikes these days the lines are not really picket lines in the sense that the goal is to shut down the site. Trucks and vehicles drove in to the plant without hindrance as two Highway Patrol vehicles stood guard, 24/7. The workers told me that the company was paying the Highway Patrol as security because the local police were not able to do so. This is the real role of the police in society, to protect and serve capital.

This gets old pretty fast. There’s nothing more demoralizing than coming out every day with a sign and scabs crossing the line unhindered and in this case the workers are receiving no pay at all including strike pay.  The workers told me that the cops are right there at any attempt to hinder traffic.  I asked one older worker why they would only strike nine plants.  He looked a bit bewildered and said that, “It was a decision taken by the International union.”  A younger worker I spoke to had a different view, “They don’t have the balls”, he said with confidence.

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that an effective strike would have started by shutting down all the plants.  The reason this wasn’t done is that the officialdom wants to assure the bosses and their Democratic Party allies that they are reasonable gentlemen and women. Leo Gerard, president of the International USW once returned to college to get a degree in economics and political science. He would have learned more had he got a job at a refinery and got a real feel for what it takes to earn a living that way.  Gerard like most of these union tops study economics from the bosses’ point of view, sit on the competitive councils and other government bodies where they get to soak up the ideology of the employers and feel important. 

I was told today and by others who have been on the picket lines since the strike started that the Contra Costa Labor Council * has not sanctioned the strike and that building trade workers are crossing the lines.  I called the CCLC Thursday and spoke to a guy who said he was there to answer phones. He did not know if the strike was sanctioned by the council or not.

“Who would I have to speak to to find out?” I asked

“The Executive Secretary but she’s not here” he replied.

“Is there anyone at the labor council who can tell me?” I asked again.

It turns out there wasn’t. 

I also called and left a message at the county building trades office to find out if it was true the building trades officials had told their members to cross.  I received no response and called back yesterday. No one answered the phone.  I did talk to the state building trades council but the woman there said that she didn’t feel that she could speak on the issue.

One worker told me that, as is normally the case these days, they receive most information from texts.  He said one text message upset him as it announced that Shell came to a negotiating session unprepared and the union negotiators agreed to cancel them for a week so the company could have time to prepare.  The message to the troops was to "stay strong" in the meantime.  It was obviously a ploy he thought and was so angry about it he could barely go out to the lines.

We’re in a mess alright.

As I wrote in a previous posting, the media war against the ILWU in its dispute with the port owners and shipping industry bosses is intensifying. There is technically a gag order that the ILWU agreed to but the bosses’ news media isn’t complying. There was a story on KCRA from Sacramento about a trucking company that has laid off workers (they call temporary layoffs, furloughs) because of the port dispute.  The bosses locked the workers out claiming they were on a go slow, what they term a strike with pay. But the reports clearly leave the impression that the workers and the ILWU is to blame.

Meanwhile the leadership of the ILWU and the USW say nothing. The heads of the AFL-CIO say nothing. No joint press conferences attacking the perpetrators of this war on workers and threatening to make the bosses' pay. In the USW strike workers cannot be on an ineffective picket line forever; the longer it goes the worse it gets.  The oil companies have been making huge profits but the energy bosses are confident, just like their colleagues in shipping are, that the leadership of organized labor will not cause trouble.

These two struggles should not be taking place in isolation but in unison. The US capitalist class and their global partners are intent on crushing the ILWU a union that has the potential to bring the US economy to a halt.  But neither the ILWU nor USW leadership will not do what is necessary to win. They will not demand anything that costs the bosses money.  They will not demand jobs through a reduction of the workweek with no loss in pay, more vacation, demand a national heath care system. They will not raise demands that will draw the communities in to the battle, make it theirs.  They will not use their resources to broaden the struggle to include other sectors of the workforce like retail through joining in any serious way the campaign for a minimum wage workers can live on-----in short, they will not use the tremendous economic power their members have as part of a generalized struggle against the offensive of capital that has made the US worker an attractive and cheap alternative for profit hungry bosses.

The potential that a unionized workforce like port workers and refinery workers have will not be potential much longer if we allow the present leadership to continue to give back what took decades and great sacrifice to win. Organized labor needs unorganized labor and we need the communities, and our movement must be international, we cannot win otherwise. Each defeat digs a deeper hole that we will inevitably be forced to climb out of.

Despite the decline in union membership due to the leadership’s disastrous policies, organized labor can still be a force to be reckoned with.  We have to build again from the ground up---doing nothing is not an option.

* Labor Councils are the county bodies of the AFL-CIO

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