Sunday, May 8, 2016

Union organizing. Is the present strategy working?

A call to your Senator won't stop this. Worker power will.
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The Communication Workers of America (CWA) has been trying to organize the workers at T-Mobile, the third largest wireless carrier in the US, for more than ten years now. These organizing drives go on for this long and usually end up in failure as the figures for union density in the US reveal. Some 35% of US workers were organized at the time of the AFL/CIO merger in 1955 compared to about 12% now, and less than 7% if the public sector is taken out of the mix.

These ten years have resulted in CWA winning two union contracts for a total of 30 out of T-Mobiles 45,000 workers according to Bloomberg.  As I have raised many times before, if those at the helm of organized labor were the CEO’s of private corporations they’d have been removed for failing to produce results.

Perhaps the other 44, 970 workers at T-Mobile are anti-union but I think not. The first obstacle to unionization of course is the employer. Regardless of the law or claims of neutrality and fairness, the bosses wage a campaign of terror against any attempts at unionization. What are press releases about threats to move production to the US South or abroad but economic terrorism.  During the poorly led transit strike here in the Bay Area a couple years ago the bosses waged a day in day out propaganda campaign against the train operators that the union leadership failed to counter.

A similar situation occurred during the Boeing workers dispute in 2013/14 as they faced a massive propaganda war and threats of losing their jobs in Washington State to the right to work states in the South.  The Boeing dispute was classic as the workers efforts to fight back were eventually overcome through a campaign of lies and manipulation by their national leaders in collaboration with the governor of Washington State, the bosses and their friends in the Democratic Party. I commented on this here (video)

There are also anti-union laws and restrictive legislation that is not conducive to organizing workers but the situation was much worse prior to the rise of the CIO in the mid 1930's and the working class much weaker organizationally. The problem is the heads of organized labor are unwilling to challenge and violate these laws. They will not return to the tactics and strategy that built the unions in the first place.

T-Mobile is no exception and has, as was common prior to the labor surge and rise of the CIO, created a company union to undermine the CWA’s efforts.  These company unions are a natural outcome of the Team Concept philosophy that is endorsed and pushed on their members by the trade union hierarchy from the top of the AFL-CIO on down.

T-Mobile execs sent e-mails to employees announcing the formation of the company union called "T-Voice . The company union will have “representatives” from each call center and will “…ensure your voice is heard” the notices tell employees. T-Voice is  “a direct line for Frontline feedback to senior leadership” the memos say and that T-Voice representatives would be bringing “pain points” from workers to management and “tracking and communicating resolution back to the team.”, How nice.

Any rank and file union representative in the actual workplace is well aware of management’s carrot and stick tactics. They use all sorts of coercion and subtle or not so subtle threats on the one hand while trying to win people over, get them “on the team” through favors and perks. Myself and others in the leadership of our blue collar local fought the Team Concept aggressively including through an ideological campaign in our newsletter and through literature in the work units, which has to be done to counter the propaganda from the bosses. This is why a strong steward system is the most crucial element in building a strong union.

After the month long strike we had in 1985 our employer hired a consultant to find out why we struck. This was after months of negotiations and a month long work stoppage with rallies, pickets the works.  The consultant interviewed both management and the union leadership to find out the reasons for the strike. I was the only elected union official that refused to talk to the consultant. They knew why we went on strike.  We’d been sitting across from them for months. They hired this guy at ratepayers expense to find out what were the union’s strengths and its weaknesses not why we struck. It was a reconnaissance mission to determine who were the stronger, committed leaders/member  who could be cajoled bribed (through promotions favors etc.) won over or even act as future snitches. It had been reported that the union’s national leadership in Washington, (where they can be closer to their allies in the Democratic Party) had referred to us as a “leaderless” local. We wouldn’t sing Cumbaya with our adversaries.

The consultant was also to find out the weak links in management. Many supervisors had come through the ranks and were sympathetic to those they supervised or had a stronger union consciousness, these had to be weeded out as well over time.

CWA president Chris Shelton is whining about the illegality of the move based on the pro-labor legislation introduced in 1935 under the Wagner Act that guarantees the right of workers to organize their own unions. “They’re funding this sham union, and it is totally and absolutely illegal, and it is totally and absolutely nonsense,” he tells Business Week.

But since when have employers cared about the law. The minute the ink is dry on a contract the bosses violate it. Harassment, threats, coercion and firings for trying to organize a union or stand up for one’s rights under an existing contract is commonplace.

“If they want to know what the problems are at T-Mobile," Shelton adds, "they could meet with folks who are elected by the people of T-Mobile and not by the CEO.”
Exploiting workers, on the job and in our communties

We have no disagreement there as it’s exactly the point I made in my experience above. It is noticeable that Shelton refers to T-Mobile’s workers that the organization he heads represents, as “people” rather than workers and as usual these decisions are painted as just some devious trick or “bad faith” on the part of the boss.  Verizon workers were taken out on strike a few years ago at great cost to them financially in the hope that the bosses would be nicer to union officials at the table.

Forming this front union is “…the equivalent of allowing Mexico to choose the U.S. trade representative,” says Jody Calemine, CWA’s general counsel. “I think it’s common sense that that is a conflict of interest.” (BW) Good thing we have lawyers to tell us about the world isn’t it.

The reason that the CWA has only been able to organize 30 workers out of a workforce of 45,000 in ten years is the leadership’s insistence in using policies that have failed time and time again. Organizing drives fail, strikes fail, even when they’re legal and the members fully behind them, because the leadership refuses to organize and mobilize the power of the membership and working class communities.  They don’t have as their goal the shutting down of production. They send their troops in to battle with one hand tied behind their backs as they plead with the bosses, their political parties and their courts to return to the good old days, just be a little less aggressive please.

We saw with the refinery strike last year that the USWA leadership rather than shutting down some 65 plants where it had representation, they selected just a few in order not to hurt the employers. Workers get pretty tired of sitting on ineffective picket lines for weeks on end with little to show for it.

In the transit strike in the Bay Area two years ago, five or more public sector unions were able to strike and could have coordinated joint action but refused to do so. With the train operators struggle, SEIU and ATU that also represented bus drivers had the drivers scab on the train operators.

The union officialdom’s support for the Team Concept is a disaster not only on the job, but in the political arena as well, as the entire labor hierarchy is joined at the hip to the Democratic Party, a party of the 1% and Wall Street.  Former CWA president Larry Cohen who Shelton replaced last year, (they’re generally always elected by acclamation) has a seat on the Democratic National Committee. What difference is this to a company union?   It is through the labor hierarchy that the 1% influence and weaken our organizations on the job and in the political arena.

Worship of the market, the defense of profits at the cost of workers’ wages benefits and working conditions as well as environmental degradation, this is the result of the Team Concept and why we have taken such huge strides backwards.  Instead of relying on our own strength, our ability as workers to hurt the bosses in the pocketbook and instead relying on the courts and our so-called friends in the Democratic Party is why we haven’t been able to drive back the austerity offensive of the bosses.

So the CWA files a lawsuit arguing that T-Mobile’s  “T-Voice is an illegal ‘company-dominated’ labor organization, something Congress banned during the New Deal era.” Business Week tells us. Well good luck with that.  If it doesn’t work, keep doing it.

There has to be a concerted open campaign against the present leadership and their pro-market policies. Any reform slate that appeals for support has to be asked, what they are fighting for and how are they proposing we win it?  What are they going to do differently other than proclaim that we need a democratic union and that’s it?

While there has been marked improvement for some of the lowest paid workers entering unions, the officialdom forces concessions on the higher paid in the interests of competition and the market. At some point we'll all meet in the middle. And $15 an hour by 1920 or later will not be much different than $10 now. Still poverty wages.   In the working class community I live, the average rent for a two bedroom apartment is around $2500 a month.

Why would the unorganized rush to join a union and pay dues to an organization that is already recommending cuts for its present members, has few if any actual demands with regard to wages and working conditions, and shows no willingness to shut the employer down if they victimize union supporters or help member to fight back on their own behalf?

The answer is they won’t. Being out of work six months or a year waiting for a friendly judge to get you back in there doesn’t inspire.

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