Sunday, August 23, 2015

A united steel and auto strike could transform the mood.

Steelworkers rally in Gary Indiana. It's not enough.
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Here we go again.  The United Steel Workers (USW) leadership is in negotiations as the contract covering 30,000 workers at US Steel and ArcelorMittal is set to expire September 1st. I don’t like having to accept this, but unless and until the inescapable rank and file struggle against the present leadership’s traitorous pro business policies results in a regime change atop organized labor we are about to see another setback.

The USW leadership had an opportunity earlier this year to reverse course when it struck refineries; well, struck some refineries.  I wrote back then, “The USW represent 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.”

That was one of many, many opportunities lost, too many in fact. It was quite obvious the USW leadership was unwilling to wage a real fight. It is this crisis of leadership that has accelerated the decline in union membership and in wages and benefits that took workers decades and heroic struggle to win.

The steel bosses have already begun to terrorize US Steel and ArcelorMittal workers in to submission prior to the their contract’s expiration. US Steel has announced it will close permanently some facilities in Alabama laying off 1100 workers. Another company, Allegheny Technologies, (ATI), has locked out 2000 of its workers in six states as USW negotiators were still at the table.  The company wants to take away guaranteed hours, and increase workers’ contributions for health care, payments that the union says would be close to a 300% increase.  The ATI bosses claim that the negotiations were stalled and have brought in scabs. This is without doubt a plan hatched by all the steel companies. Unlike the union hierarchy, these people bring all their forces together in their war against workers, including the police the courts and their media.

The latest update on the ATI lockout on the USW leadership states: “A week into the ULP lockout, there have been no new contract talks with ATI’s management and there are currently no negotiations scheduled.  ATI apparently seems more interested in bussing out-of-state replacement workers into our facilities than they are in bargaining a fair contract with our union.  The USW remains available to meet with ATI management to continue bargaining and reach a fair and equitable agreement.” 

This doesn’t inspire much hope that things have changed at all. Yes, I would say ATI is more interested in bringing strikebreakers than bargaining a “fair” contract. They have learned through years of experience from a co-operative labor officialdom that they have no need to bargain at all.  They are not afraid of the union leadership. They must chuckle at the last statement in the paragraph above, the union officials prostrating themselves before them. They can do this as their living standards are never really affected, they don’t have to work under the concessionary contracts they force on their members.

As their brothers and sisters at ATI remain locked out, union officials organized a number of rallies at US Steel and ArcelorMittal facilities in a “Week of Solidarity” for a “fair” contract.  Using the term fair is how the labor leadership avoids making any clear demands at all as their position at the table is concessions. Leo W Gerard, the USW president, assured the steel bosses that nothing has changed in their bargaining strategy announcing on the union’s website that  “We recognize that this is a difficult time for the steel industry…..,”. He goes on to make the usual point that these are good jobs and its important that we keep them. Can’t they just be a little nicer?

Commodity prices have been dropping and steel is no exception so the bosses are not lying when they say they are having a hard time. Lakshi Mittal the primary owner of ArcelorMittal is having a hard time of it. He has been relegated to the world’s 82nd richest man from the number 6 spot on the Forbes 500. He’s only worth some $12 billion now. Maybe he will have to sell that $128 million residence in London or even worse, the $130 million home he bought there for his daughter.  Those rotten steelworkers have no compassion.

Both US Steel and Mittal have embarked on a little bit of pre contract expiration date terrorism; “US Steel announced last week the closure of a blast furnace at its Fairfield Works near Birmingham, Alabama and the layoffs of 1,100 workers. This followed the announcement by ArcelorMittal,, Sharon Jones wrote in a piece on the World Socialist Website today

As Ms. Jones points out, the steelworkers contract expires at the same time as the contract that covers 140, 000 workers at Ford, General Motors, and Fiat/Chrysler. But there is no indication that the union hierarchy has changed its approach or abandoned the Team Concept philosophy.  The power is potentially there but for the union leadership using it can only lead to chaos, after all, profits are sacrosanct. What is the point of belonging to a national organization (the AFL-CIO) if individual unions are left to fight what is actually organized global capital on their own. We can't win that way.

We see the same approach time after time, the union leadership undermining the potential power of organized labor despite the historically low unionization rate.  We saw it here in the San Francisco Bay Area transit workers strike where bus operators, eligible to strike with their brothers and sisters in light rail and in the same unions, helped to break the strike by working across their lines at the direction of their leadership.  Three other public sector unions were also eligible to strike at the same time and refused to do so.

The time for endless protests and complaining has passed.  The bosses are confident after decades of concessionary contracts offered them by the union hierarchy that they will not lead a fight.  We have argued on this blog many times that the rank and file cannot avoid the struggle to overcome this obstacle of our own leadership. This dam must be breached.

Rank and file opposition caucuses must be built in the unions in opposition to the Team Concept which would mean breaking from the Democratic Party that is the Team Concept in the political sphere and committing to the fight against austerity and organizing the unorganized.  There are huge explosions taking place throughout the US against environmental degradation, racism, sexism, police brutality and the incarceration of millions of our youth, especially black and brown youth. There is rising anger at the massive investment of public funds and reaping of profits in the military industrial complex and its wars.

Any serious rank and file opposition caucus committed to fighting for union members must also build direct links with all these movements in our communities, throughout the country and the world if we are serious about changing this situation. The silence of the present leadership on most of these issues is deafening. The organized working class should be in the forefront of all these struggles offering our financial and organizational resources and using our position as a crucial element in the functioning of the economy and making profits in order to broaden our movement and throw back the austerity agenda of the 1%.

A good start would be less sports and more politics.

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