Monday, February 19, 2018

Unions Can Organize and Win Strikes. But Not With the Present Leadership

"This is William.  I apologize, I’m so sorry for what this contract gave us.  I didn’t vote for it.  I didn’t like it.  I’ve said my piece.  But, uh, I guess a lot of people were broken down or whatever.I feel that the company won.  I feel that the union didn’t fight hard enough.  But I definitely voiced my opinion at the meeting.  So I guess I got to go with the flow.

But I apologize for anybody else who is going to have their contract coming up.  Thank you for the coffee. Thank you for the encouragement.  And thank you for being on my side.

Take care, Rich. "

This above is what a striker wrote to me after five months on the picket line in the 2004 grocery strike and after the vote to go back to work. I was on those picket lines every day during my lunchtime and after work. This strike was defeated due to the leadership of the UFCW and AFL-CIO that chose the employer over the worker. The comment below in bold the UFCW spokesperson Ron Lind made to the mass media in the midst of the strike when members were out of work losing money and sometimes their homes. Activists that ignore this role and don't challenge this collaboration and fight openly in our movement for the consciousness of the members and the working class and a different approach as a whole are derelict of duty. RM

“We want to make changes with a scalpel, not a chain saw.” *

by Richard Mellor

Afscme Local 444, retired

I have to bring this subject up again because it is such a glaring omission on the one hand and because the consequences of it disarm and in fact can demoralize, those rank and file union members who want to fight to change the present concessionary and pro-business policies of the AFL-CIO leadership. I am referring to this In These Times article on the subject of union organizing.  In These Times is a liberal/left newspaper directed mainly at academia and the liberal middle classes in or around the labor movement and often employed as staffers and advisors to the officialdom.

This article by Seth Kershner is about the retail industry.

Mr. kershner provides some useful information about the retail industry. He points out that retail has seen a 50% increase in employment to about $15 million workers since 1980 while real wages for these workers has fallen 11% over the same period. Mirroring the decline in union density over the past decades Retail had a union density rate of 15% in the 1970’s while grocery stores hit a peak of 31% in 1983. The source of Mr. Kirshner’s information is Peter Ikeler, a sociologist who has written books on the subject.

The professor blames de-unionization on the “hollowing out” of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) system through legal challenges by the employers and correctly stresses that it is “employer hostility” that is the most “important factor” in the decline of union membership in retail and by implication, organized labor as a whole. “The climate for labor organizing in retail is pretty explicitly negative” Ikeler argues. It wasn’t exactly positive in the 1880’s or 1920’s and 30’s either.

In what I assume is support of professor Ikeler’s book Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains, Mr. Kershner gives some examples of the hostility aimed at workers and unions. Kershner quotes examples of propaganda and lies that are part of workplace meetings along with what I describe as workplace terrorism; putting the fear of god in to workers if they even think or talk about unions. Another strategy is terminating workers found guilty of doing so to set an example.

In These Times and other similar journals are fond of quoting various “labor experts” about the conditions workers face on the job, the threats, intimidation, violations of safety and other rules. The heads of organized labor who reside in Washington DC also turn to academia and the experts to legitimize their roles as heads of the organizations and their claims that things are bad.  Workers are sources of information but not of power in this approach.

Both Professor Ikler and Mr. Kirshner it seems claim that “unions also share part of the blame”.  Now here is where I have to point out a glaring omission, certainly in Mr. Kershner’s article and possibly Professor Ikler’s book, and that is the absence of a union leadership. Ikler, Kirshner writes, “thinks that unions have done a lousy job of keeping workers engaged” and he goes on to give some examples which show that many workers are not aware that they’re in a union. As a retired utility worker and union activist for 30 odd years I can attest to that, many union members cannot name their union and certainly not the AFL-CIO.

Both Ikler and kershner avoid, or cover for the role of the union leadership by using the all-inclusive term, “the union” It appears that organized labor has members who pay the dues and work in the workplaces of the US and that’s it. Ikler according to Mr. Kershner and in agreement with him apparently, believes that “unions need to step up their organizing and get back to what union were in their early New Deal, Days”

In other words, that members don’t know they are in a union or that they belong to the AFL-CIO or anything much else about the movement, and what has been happening to us is simply a product of “the union”  (all of us) doing a “lousy job”. It’s purely an organizational issue.

Many union members never see their officials outside of election time or when there’s a Democrat running for office that the union hierarchy is supporting. I have been on picket lines through three or more retail industry strikes and, like all workers, they have suffered defeat after defeat. In the case of the 2004 grocery strike here in California the UFCW leadership were asking shoppers not to cross informational picket lines up North while UFCW members were stocking the shelves. The UFCW leadership and the entire labor movement refused to mobilize the power of the membership and violate anti-union laws, no strike clauses and win. Yes, members have a responsibility, but leadership is crucial.

In some cases union leadership takes workers out on strike simply to encourage the employer to talk to them nicer. In the Wisconsin events of a few years ago with a hundred thousand or more workers in the streets and occupying the State Capital Rotunda the only two demands that the union leadership made an issue of were dues check off which is where the employer collects the unions revenue through payroll, and collective bargaining rights which affect the leadership’s role as official bargaining representatives and a seat at the table. I am opposed to dues check off as it gives the bosses’ control of our funds and isolates more the rank and file member from the union as an organization.

Bargaining rights is important obviously but without this role the hierarchy has no job and overwhelmingly they have used their position to assist the employers and force concessions on their own members. In the case of Wisconsin, concessions were fine. The officialdom had the members out to defend their own jobs only.

In researching his book Ikler talked to workers at Target (Target used to be GEMCO and was unionized) who basically said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they supported unions. This is something every worker is well aware of. The question is where is the power to protect them when they do?  Target management claims that they solve issues with the help of “their team” meaning the workers, and that they “create an environment of mutual trust between Target and our team members.”

Talk to any worker that trusts you and they know damn well that they’re not on the same team. Yes, some conservative less class conscious workers might, but not many if they’re honest, because work teaches us otherwise.

Source Doug Henwood
These graphs on the left reveal the decline in strikes and workplace stoppages. This is the product of decades of cooperation with the employer's by the heads of the AFL-CIO and organized labor in general. It also reflects the fear that workers have after participating in or witnessing strikes that are not really aimed at stopping production but are merely 24 hour protests that end in defeat or being sent back to work after weeks on picket lines with no significant improvements.

In a previous piece on Labor and the SEIU I pointed to the massive propaganda campaign the AFL-CIO and SEIU waged to get employees of Kaiser Permanente, the huge HMO to get on board with the Team Concept. The AFL-CIO used its own version of fear and coercion to get those workers to vote against their gut instincts and place their faith not in our own power and mobilization of workers in and outside unions, but to allow their leadership to jump in bed with the health care executives. Its Industrial Union Department produced an expensive glossy fold out urging the rank and file of Kaiser’s unions to vote yes for a new “labor management partnership” There were implications of catastrophe if the workers didn’t do so.
In 2009, the Western State Council of the UFCW presented its Person of the Year Award to the Chairman of Save-Mart Bob Piccini. Not a steward, not a militant rank and file fighter. A worker doesn’t need a sociology degree or advice from a labor history expert degree to know what this is.

It is not an accident that some workers don’t know whether they’re in a union or not, the present heads of organized labor from the top down prefer it that way. It is a conscious strategy on their part. They use member power very cautiously just to blow off some steam, call people out here and there, have rally after rally, make a lot of noise. But stopping production, real strikes, mobilizing the power of workers on the job and in our communities in an offensive of our own against austerity, this is a terrifying thought for them. Will they be able to control the anger that might arise when a collective sense of our own power frees it?

They support the Team Concept because they see no alternative to the market, they worship the market and capitalism. So in the face of an employers offensive they scramble to help them out which means attacking their own members’ interests. To mobilize the potential power of their members can only lead to chaos from their world viewpoint.

This ignoring of labor’s leadership is a conscious thing. Many liberal academics work for or are connected to the labor officialdom in some way and are aware that it is not only non union employers like Target that push this labor management team nonsense, the unionized ones do too. The Team Concept, the philosophy that workers and bosses have the same interests is the dominant thinking among the labor hierarchy and the root cause of their class collaboration and betrayals.  To point to their role, which has meant cooperation and collaboration with employers and capital, would bring them in to a conflict with the hierarchy so they avoid it. But this more or less leads to blaming the members instead. 

I am not saying there aren’t academics or people that have been trained in certain fields that can provide huge benefits and assistance to the working class in our struggle against capital. Many have and many have made great sacrifices. But as Marx once said, the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. No force can do it for us.

Professor Ikler looks to the creation of worker centers where we can “ about work conditions and plan campaigns.”, and begin to build, "A strong occupational identity -- where workers are very committed to a craft, to an occupation -- this has often been a source of collective identity and resistance,"  I find this a bit of a confusing statement. Is he suggesting we return to the craft mentality?  He seems to think we don’t discuss work, we don’t discuss our type of work, we have no sense of working class unity. I realize it’s harder for someone at a university as these are capitalist institutions where their ideology is very strong; they are capitalist Think Tanks. But we talk a lot about work.

Workers talk about conditions all the time, after work, at the pub, at dinner and visiting friends. When talking of leadership they often blame criminal activity, corruption and obscene salaries as the reason for their leadership’s refusal to fight but these are secondary factors, the Team Concept philosophy is primary. Many an honest fighter has ended up on the other side; the road to hell is paved with good intentions as they say.

And it’s fine to plan a campaign but, again, Ikler runs away from the inevitable, any efforts at changing the present policies of concessions will bring these workers in to a conflict with the hierarchy and it can be fatal to ignore this. Many of the socialist left in the unions avoid openly challenging the present leadership also using building the “Vanguard Party” as an excuse or claiming the union leadership will never do anything no matter what. The present leadership has built a relationship with the bosses’ based on labor peace and they will not sit idly by when it appears a movement is arising that threatens that view. Even the organizing successes of unions like SEIU, is based on labor/management cooperation and making workers part of the team. It’s like a business, a road to increasing revenue.

For those of us developing strategies we must help prepare the rank and file for the reality of a struggle and help in it.

Ikler talks about unions getting back to the “…early New Deal Days.” but doesn’t really elaborate except calling them “worker based”. I have no idea what he means by that but getting back to what won in the thirties is exactly what we have to do. Millions of workers joined unions in this period. Workers occupied factories, youth occupied schools, roving pickets traveled from workplace to workplace, the great 44-day Flint occupation should be labor’s 4th of July. We had three general strikes in 1934 and the last general strike in Oakland in 1946, a huge year for strike days lost. There were unemployed movements like A.J Muste’s group that joined in the 1934 Toledo General Strike, and housing and renters movements based on direct action tactics.

We saw an attempt in the 1980’s to push back against the capitalist offensive after the defeat of Patco in 1980 when Reagan fired 11,000 strikers and banned them from working in their industry for life. The union leadership did nothing but voice a few platitudes and raised some money. Numerous major strikes followed; Two Greyhound strikes, Eastern Airlines, AT&T Hormel Meat Packing in Austen Mn. Detroit Teamsters. We had strikes at Stalely, that took on the name the “War Zone” and in the mines and International Paper. Public sector worker struck in Philadelphia and elsewhere. These strikes were defeated not because workers were unwilling to sacrifice but because the trade union leadership from the AFl-CIO down refused to bring the power of organized labor and our communities to the table and confront capital rather than defending it.

The rank and file of labor does have a responsibility and that is to build opposition caucuses in the workplaces, union halls where they can, and campaign openly against the policies of the present leadership. As a movement form below gains traction splits will occur in the present leadership and others will be replaced. Police brutality, environmental catastrophe, poison water, education and health care and the despair that leads people to right wing hate groups and the horrific school shooting are are witnessing are all union issues. If the left doesn’t fill the vacuum the right will. The silence of the present heads of organized labor on these issues is deafening.

We must return to what built the union in the first place. Rely on our own strength, challenge and build to a movement that can violate anti-union laws and demand what we need, not what the present officials and their friends in the Democratic Party tell us is realistic.

This is not a picnic------it never was.

* Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson during the 2004 strike assuring the grocery bosses, through the mass media, that their profits would be safe.

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