Thursday, February 16, 2017

Boeing workers reject union. Whose fault is that? Not theirs.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The IAMAW (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers) suffered a stunning defeat at the Boeing factory in Charleston South Carolina as workers voted against joining a union.  The turnout was strong with 2,828 of approximately 3000 workers eligible to vote doing so and 2,097 voting against according to The Post and Courier.

The defeat comes after a unionization drives failed at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga Tennessee in 2014 (see UAW leadership responsible for the defeat at VW) and production and maintenance workers at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco in North Carolina in 2011. South Carolina is also a Right-To Work state which is undoubtedly a hurdle but by no means an insurmountable one. 

One of the so-called labor experts, more often than not academics that give an intellectual legitimacy to the labor hierarchy’s disastrous policies, pointed out that this was an opportunity for the union as favoritism was prominent at the plant and talks of layoffs and cutbacks, “…had given the IAM its best shot at gaining a foothold.”.

The IAMAW’s goals were addressing favoritism and inconsistency, “…fairer evaluations, more consistent work instructions, and higher wages for production and maintenance workers in South Carolina…” according to the New York Times

Why would these workers vote against a union, against their own self- interest some might say?

Perhaps the most anti-worker answer to that question comes from Dave Macaray, a former union staffer who writes regularly for the liberal online magazine, Counterpunch.  As is usually the case with former staffers and other liberal types who write on labor issues, the role of the labor hierarchy, not only their refusal to fight in any serious way but their outright class collaboration, is completely missing in Macaray’s report on the election today. Instead he blames the rank and file:

“So before these non-union South Carolinian Boeing workers congratulate themselves on their self-reliance and old-fashioned American “individualism,” they need to realize that without the presence of organized labor acting as their de facto accomplice, they would be one step away from “respectable poverty.”  Big Union Vote at South Carolina’s Boeing Plant

How enlightened he is. How condescending. This is the view of a union bureaucrat---blame the members, blame the worker. He basically puts them in the “free rider” status which is what workers at unionized workplaces who opt to not pay dues are called. But why would these workers vote to join a union in such a hostile climate?

And according to the New York Times article quoted above, production and maintenance workers in South Carolina. “….
make about $23 per hour on average, versus about $31 per hour for comparable workers in Washington State.”. The cost of housing, a huge percentage of a workers’ income, is probably significantly lower in SC and from what I can tell, the median wage for a cashier in SC is $8.16, a customer rep, $12.09, a Licensed Practical nurse, $18.35 so wages may not be the most important issue, it is also a question of union power on the job.

Macaray is wrong. It has little or nothing to do with “old fashioned American individualism” why the vote went in Boeing's favor. It is the bosses’ and their politicians’ aggression and the refusal of the labor hierarchy to combat it. We know by experience that management and the right wing politicians in SC waged a massive anti-union campaign.
Boeing and the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance bought hundreds of spots for anti-union TV ads. They wage a media war of terror against workers in these situations.

I do not know all the details yet but it’s not uncommon to sign neutrality agreements with employers in unionizing drives as the UAW at Volkswagen did. It seems unlikely given the media blitz, but we know that the employer is never neutral. In the Volkswagen defeat, the union leadership even gave up the right to visit members in their own homes in exchange for access to them on the job.

The heads of organized labor are wedded to the Team Concept, the view that workers and bosses have the same interests and approach these disputes, which are really the class struggle over the share of wealth that workers create, as spats between teammates. The bosses’ use the term team members when they refer to their employees. But workers know differently.

In this case, in response to the ideological assault from Boeing in the media, claiming that the union would create a hostile labor/management environment at the workplace and likely lead to the loss of jobs if Boeing cut costs or left the state, IAMAW organizers replied in part saying that, “workers could seek the help of a union steward if they had a problem on the job but that they would otherwise be free to deal with managers on their own.”

That instills confidence does it?  “Nice unions finish last” Micah Uetricht's article about the UAW’s failure to organized Volkswagen in Tennessee is right on. He too was a former union organizer but at least he criticized the leadership’s strategy in that fiasco.

hese fears are real for the rank and file worker. Macaray warns workers at Boeing that they will be one step away from “respectable poverty” if they refuse to accept organized labor as their “their de facto accomplice” Workers are not stupid, we do pay some attention to these issues. The UAW leadership, for example, like all of them,  has cooperated with the auto bosses in driving its members wages and conditions drastically lower. They sabotaged a strike in Cleveland North Carolina some years ago and cooperated with the company in terminating militant local leaders that dared to fight against concessions. These betrayals are the norm. And unionized workers are ending up in poverty all the time.

The IAMAW leadership played a disastrous role in the Boeing contract dispute in Washington State in 2013, forcing a concessionary contract on the workers. This occurs throughout organized labor, concessionary contracts forced down workers’ throats.

These Boeing workers would be well aware that unions don’t prevent layoffs; the strategy of the leadership is generally to file lawsuits and generally lose them, or bring workers out on strike for weeks, walking ineffective picket lines in order to end up with fewer concessions than the boss demanded----if they’re lucky. And these picket lines are not really strike picket lines. They are 24-hour protests that cost the dues payer a lot of time and money for no gain. In the hotel and restaurant strikes in San Francisco some years ago, the officials placed tape on the sidewalk and had the strikers stay within the tape. The tape stopped at the entrance to the struck business in order to allow those crossing, free, undisturbed access. This was agreed to in a deal with the union leadership the police and the hotel bosses. It was bizarre.

South Carolina may be in the South with all its history but it is obvious to anyone with a brain that unions are not preventing the continued downward spiral that is undermining our living standards and working conditions that were the result of decades of struggle and sacrifice and that the Union officialdom is supporting this.

These workers do not see the potential power of organized labor, the mobilizing of the membership and our communities brought to the table. They have no confidence that the union can protect them against the bosses’ aggression and they are right. Yes, the bosses might make certain concessions to keep unions out. But why pay union dues when ones working conditions and living standards continue to decline? Workers built unions to advance our material interests, it is not an exercise in civics. If conditions continue to deteriorate and wages decline as union dues increase; why pay them.

The IAMAW at its international conference last year passed a resolution or amendment that is intended to give the rank and file more power. This comes after the leaderships’ sabotage during the contract dispute a few years earlier. But this doesn’t really guarantee much.

The entire leadership of organized labor supports the Team Concept and we cannot win under those conditions. We witnessed the disgusting spectacle of the building trades leaders meeting with Trump and praising him. Hoffa, the lawyer that heads the Teamsters lavished Trump with praise and the public sector leaders have said next to nothing but whine about how unfair it is; they are a disgrace. How does this make women members or people of color feel seeing these people suck up to the predator in chief like that? Any thinking worker is sickened by it.

No one union, local or national union can win alone. We cannot win with the present leadership that has the same world-view as the employers. It is crucial that rank and file workers build fighting opposition caucuses based in the workplaces and the locals. Any group or those claiming to reform the unions must start form a position of openly campaigning against the Team Concept and openly challenging the present leadership’s concessionary approach. We must break the unwritten code that leaders don't criticize each other.

Building strong links with the community, demanding what we need as workers and members of the community as opposed to what is acceptable to the labor officialdom and their friends in the Democratic Party is the starting point.  To ignore the role of the leadership as Macaray does is common among the left as well. Members and former members of socialist organizations often have positions in the left bureaucracy, some as officials. Too often, socialists make concessions to the left wing of the labor bureaucracy at the expense of the members and building a wider opposition in the unions, our communities and society as a whole.

Those wanting to change the unions cannot avoid a conflict with the present clique that controls them; they won’t allow it.The members know it too, that this is serious business and they will not be drawn en masse to an opposition movement than avoids this inevitable struggle.

If we want the members to step forward, to accept the risks that joining a union and being active in it poses on the job, then we have to show them that when the bosses attack them, there are repercussions. As things stand with the present leadership of the trade unions, the bosses’ don’t fear them, they are their allies, their team members

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